How to Make Vacation Costs Less Painful

March 29, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Before we moved to Florida two years ago, my family of five took an annual vacation down to Orlando every year for six years. It wasn’t always a Disney World trip, but it was a chance to get a break from the cold and snow of Indiana and to bask in the warmth of Central Florida.

And we didn’t always have the money for an expensive trip, but we were certainly able to have a fun time, all without breaking the bank or putting ourselves in terrible debt. It started with a little pre-planning the year before, which lightened the load. Here’s how we did it.

1. Driving is Cheaper than Flying

It may be a huge pain, but we would drive from Indianapolis to Orlando in about 20 hours. For a while, we did it in a single day, which was awful. After a while, we switched to two days which was fine, but usually added $250 to the trip, including the hotel nights and extra meals.

Still, it certainly beats five tickets at $400 apiece (although I certainly envy the two-hour flight time). We could drive 1,000 miles, visit the grocery store for breakfast and lunch, and then hit a decent restaurant for dinner, all for around $150. If we wanted to stop in a hotel, we would stay at the Holiday Inn Express near Macon, Georgia. We weren’t going for comfort and luxury there. We wanted something clean, comfortable, and safe. All told, the 2-day trip cost between $250 –$300 each way, and was still cheaper than flying. Plus we had our car once we were in town.

2. Buy gift cards throughout the year

Epcot in Orlando, Florida during the Flower and Garden Festival in May. One of my favorite vacations.

Epcot during the Flower and Garden Festival in May

One strategy we had to cut travel costs was to buy gift cards during the year and keep them in an envelope. My wife would buy $25 gift cards for Shell gas or Outback restaurant once a month. We had traveled enough times on this route that we knew where to stop to use them.

While it didn’t save us any money, we didn’t have to come up with a fistful of cash all at once just to cover the drive. By getting the gift cards, we were able to sock away some savings without actually putting the money in a savings account. (We tried that a couple times, but always had some emergency or other that required us to “borrow” from the savings and never put it back.)

3. Plan your activities, book ahead when possible

If you’re watching your vacation budget carefully, this is where you have to be hard-nosed. You will be sorely tempted to “just this once” add a new activity to your itinerary. It could be a tour or show, or some other amazing attraction that caught your eye, but it inflates your total costs. It’s worse if you show up without any plans at all, because you won’t really keep track of what you’re spending, and you can easily go overboard.

Instead, schedule out your activities and book the tickets in advance throughout the year. That way, you don’t have to cough up the cash right at that moment (see #2 above). Then, when temptation rears its ugly head, you have to stick to the schedule, and either refuse to be tempted or be willing to give up another activity (or activities) so you can pay for the new one. And if you’ve already bought the tickets, you’ll be even less tempted than before.

4. Plan for rest days

There’s a lot of truth to the old joke of “needing a vacation from our vacation.” When we would return home from Orlando, we would be exhausted, and not just because we drove 20 hours straight. We had spent days and days walking around the theme parks, visiting friends, or popping over to the beach for a day. We were exhausted. Plus, it’s expensive to do something every day.

We finally got smart and started blocking in rest days into our schedule. Those were the days we stayed around the rental house, spent time in the pool, or visited different parts of the city. We didn’t have anywhere to be, and best of all, we didn’t have to spend any money.

Even that one day of not doing anything gave us a chance to sleep in, take a nap, or just recover from the drive and last few days of activity. It also helped us reduce our costs, because we were just able to eat at home instead of going out.

How do you reduce your vacation costs without reducing the enjoyment? Do you have any cost-saving measures you can recommend? If you’ve got any tips, suggestions, or ideas, please share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers, used with permission

How to Travel Comfortably if You’re, um, Bigger

March 15, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m not a small guy. I’m 6′ 2″ and I weigh “I-buy-XXL-shirts” pounds. That means I’m taller than average and heavier than average, which makes it a bit difficult to travel comfortably. In fact, just last week, I flew from Orlando to Indianapolis and back again in 48 hours, and then drove to Tampa as soon as I landed. I’ll also be flying to Dallas next month and may be on a plane a couple more times this year. And trying to travel comfortably on the plane isn’t always easy.

If I want to be comfortable in my travels, there are a few things I do to ensure it’s not unpleasant.

Fly Economy Plus or better

I’m tall enough that if I ride in regular economy, my knees are always jammed up against the seat in front of me, so I always pay a little extra for the Economy Plus seating. The legroom is a little more,, and that alone is worth the extra costs. Plus, I’ve noticed that the seatbelts are a little longer, which means they fit better and I don’t crush my bladder whenever I fasten my seatbelt.

And as an Economy Plus member, I can always board right after their top priority club members and first class passengers, which means I can always get a spot for my bag in the overhead bin.

If you’re several inches taller than me, you can spring for an exit row seat or a first class seat. And if you’re wider than me, you may either have to buy a second seat (which some airlines require), or upgrade to business or first class. But give Economy Plus a try if you need just a few inches to spare.

Drive 7 hours or less instead of flying

The author at a reading in Pensacola, Florida. I try to travel comfortably whenever I have to go anywhere.

Yours truly reading humor at the Foo Foo Festival in Pensacola, Florida. We drove 8 hours to get there, because it was just easier and more comfortable.

When I lived in Indianapolis, I could get to Chicago in 3 hours, Nashville in 5, and Madison, Wisconsin in 7. Since a regular plane trip from Indianapolis to most places would take 6 hours from my house to my hotel, I always drove my car for any road trip that I could do in six or seven hours.

That’s because a normal flight, from door to door, took six hours. If I left my house at 6:00 am, I could drive 45 minutes to the airport, pay for parking, get there two hours early, fly for an hour, get a rental car, and drive 45 minutes to my hotel. And I would get there around noon.

Or I could drive my car round trip for the price of four tanks of gas. I would leave my house at 6:00 am, and get to the hotel by noon. I saved a lot of money, I took the same amount of time, but I was also more comfortable and had the use of my car to boot. (If I was going to be somewhere for several days, but it was a 7 or 8 hour car trip, I would still drive so I wouldn’t need to rent a car.)

Be confident

This is a tough one. On one of my legs up to Indianapolis last week, my seatbelt was 4 inches too short. Never mind that every other belt on every other flight was just fine. Airlines just seem to put random length seat belts on all their seats, although it’s worse in economy seating. Economy Plus seatbelts seem to be bit longer and I rarely find one that’s too short, which is another reason I pay for the upgrade.

But that wasn’t true in this case; this time, the belt was just a few inches too short, so I had to ask for a lap belt extension.

I didn’t like doing it, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But I’ve been able to fit every other flight I’ve been on, plus I’ve lost 20 pounds, so I knew it wasn’t me.

I decided confidence was the key to surviving this with my dignity intact. I held my head up high, looked the flight attendant square in the eye, and very quietly whispered, “Can I have a belt extension please?”

Trust me, it sucked. Like I had to admit I was too big to fly like a normal person. But the alternative was to be completely unsafe and embarrassed if the flight attendant publicly called me out for not fastening my seat belt. Plus I could have easily been hurt if we hit some major turbulence. So I asked for the extension and I was able to fly comfortably.

Traveling is difficult enough already, but it’s even more difficult when you need more room than other people. So you have three choices, be extremely uncomfortable, pay for the extra room, or never go anywhere. I personally like to see the world, but I don’t want to be uncomfortable, so I’ll drive or pay for upgrades whenever I travel.

And I’ll be happy with who I am and how I look, and if other people don’t like it, that’s tough.

Do you do anything special to ensure you travel comfortably? Do you have any tips for us? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (used with permission)

Chain Hotels versus B&Bs versus Airbnb

February 22, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I have mixed feelings about bed and breakfasts (B&Bs). The best B&B experience I ever had was at the Kintner House Hotel in Corydon, Indiana. Corydon is notable for being the site of one of only two Civil War battles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Also, it was Indiana’s first state capital. So the place was pretty special to me as an Indiana history buff.

I stayed there a few times over the years, while traveling on business, and had my favorite room, the Trunk Room. The staff even got to know me a bit and remembered me each time I visited.

Kintner House Inn, a normal B&B. Not available on Airbnb (I checked).

The Kintner House Inn in Corydon, IN

I also had a terrible B&B experience once when my wife and I traveled to Indianapolis for a wedding one August and realized the B&B in question was someone’s spare guest room in a 1940s ranch-style bungalow. The hostess kept the house too warm, and we had a secret back-and-forth fight over the AC setting. I would bump it down to 74, and she would bump it back up to 78. We did this at least two times during the night, but we never spoke of it over breakfast the next morning.

Compare that to the good luck I’ve had with chain hotels. When I stay at one of my favorite hotel chains — usually Holiday Inn, sometimes a Hampton Inn — I can always count on an identical experience free of any surprises or unexpected quirks.

On the other hand, that’s the downside of staying at chain hotels. It’s an identical experience free of any surprises or unexpected quirks.

And my limited Airbnb experience has been primarily positive. I’ve always rented an entire house so I can avoid my negative B&B experience, and the houses have always been clean, safe, and in decent neighborhoods. It’s a nice compromise, although my wife isn’t a fan.

If you’re trying to decide which option you want on your next family vacation, here are a few things to consider before you book your rooms for your vacation.

Chain Hotels

If you’re looking for a way to save money, a chain hotel may be your best bet. Depending on where you’re going, nights can be anywhere from $95 to $300 or more (especially in big cities near major event venues, e.g. Manhattan, downtown Chicago). The more they cost, the nicer the rooms. And there’s something great about feeling like a VIP when you step into a decked-out high-rise room.

You can also earn loyalty points, which can reduce the costs of future stays, or give you other rewards. You can earn these points by flying specific airlines or even dining at certain restaurants.

And like I said earlier, barring an unusual situation, you can rely on the kind of experience you’re going to get at a chain hotel. No surprises, no unusual sleeping arrangements, no weird room layouts. Many of them serve breakfast — my son loves the breakfast buffets at the Hampton Inn — so it’s a way to save a little money on food if you’re on a road trip.

At the same time, there’s something special about specialty boutique hotels, like The Galt House in Louisville, Colcord Hotel in Oklahoma City, or 21C hotels. They may not have loyalty programs, but they’re quite fancy and still affordable. I can’t recommend 21C enough if you want an interesting, but artistic hotel stay.

Bed & Breakfasts

I’ve stayed at more than a few B&Bs, and my one terrible experience notwithstanding, I’ve always enjoyed them. These are usually old historic houses in small towns or quiet neighborhoods, and they serve a nice little breakfast in the morning.

The one downside is that they’re not always ideal for families, especially if you have small kids. And they’re usually destinations, not stop off points like a hotel. They’re geared more toward the quiet weekend away from the mad rush of the city and constant nagging of social media and television.

The times my wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast, it was strictly to relax, sleep in, and enjoy the town we were visiting. But we never took our kids because they weren’t made for little children, they didn’t have rollaway beds or cribs, and a lot of them didn’t have televisions or ways of entertaining little ones. At least the ones we visited were made this way, and we chose them intentionally for that reason. If you want a place to take your younger kids, check with the owner before you book your room so you’re not disappointed. Some B&Bs (and Airbnbs) even have “no children” rules, so be sure to check.

Airbnb

I appreciate Airbnb when I travel to a city where I’ll be staying for several days, but want something cheaper than a good hotel. You can get an entire house to yourself, or you can get a single guest room inside someone’s house, and I’ve always managed to get something for less than $120 per night. My wife took my oldest daughter to New York City for her 18th birthday, and they stayed in someone’s room in their apartment, and said it was a great experience.

I took the same daughter to Nashville, Tennessee for a conference and got the upper floor of a house (the owners lived in the lower level) in an east side neighborhood, just a few miles from where I needed to be. What was really great was all the hotels were sold out because it was the Country Music Awards, and no one had scooped up this house. It cost less than most of the hotels ($90/night versus $300) and quite a bit closer to where I needed to be.

An Airbnb is an ideal setup if you have a carload of kids and want to be able to spread out, but don’t want to be crammed into a single hotel room. You usually get cable television and wifi, there are plenty of beds and bedrooms (assuming you planned properly), and best of all, you get to control the house’s AC and heat.

Ultimately your sleeping arrangement comes down to your own personal preferences, but for the most part, I like the hotel option first, Airbnb second, and a regular bed and breakfast third. But part of that is because I’m a bit competitive, and like accumulating points at the hotels. However, if you want to stay at an Airbnb, they do have a point-sharing loyalty arrangement with Delta Airlines now. Just visit DeltaAirbnb.com and book your room through that site, and you can earn Delta SkyMiles.

Where would you stay? Which do you prefer? Do you have a go-to lodging choice, or do you pick it based on your own travel plans? Share your recommendations in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Take an Accessible Vacation: How to Travel with a Wheelchair or Scooter

February 8, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Living in the Land of the Mouse and enjoying all the parks, you quickly realize how many people need assistance or have mobility issues when they travel. Whether it’s someone who walks with a cane or walking stick, someone who needs some extra time getting around, or someone who uses a wheelchair or scooter just to get through their day-to-day.

Sylvia Longmire in Rome, taking her own accessible vacation

Sylvia in Rome, Italy on her Pride Mobility scooter

My good friend, Sylvia Longmire, brought this all home for me when she became an accessible travel agent — that is, someone who specializes in arranging travel for people with mobility issues. Sylvia has MS and uses a mobility scooter. And she travels like a maniac, jetting from international locale to international locale. Last year, she was in Ireland, Denmark, Greece, and The Netherlands, all on her scooter (or a rented wheelchair), so if anyone knows about finding and booking accessibility travel, it’s her.

If you or a family member has mobility and accessibility issues, there are plenty of ways to get around by plane, train, or automobile, and to get into almost any attraction, hotel, or restaurant you’d like. A lot of it depends on what kind of accommodations you need, and whether you do your research and ask the right questions beforehand.

Another thing to keep in mind, Sylvia says, is that while the United States has the Americans with Disabilities Act to improve wheelchair access in public places, it’s not always perfect. But countries like the UK, Australia, and Germany have similar laws, so there are options if you’d like to travel outside the US.

So if you have any kind of disability, but still want to travel, you can always do it yourself, but I recommend using a travel agent like Sylvia because she knows what to look for and what kinds of questions to ask the various places you’ll be visiting and hotels you’ll be staying at. Still, if you want to do it yourself, here are the questions you need to answer before you go.

“Does your hotel have a wheelchair friendly room?” This means a door wide enough to accommodate a chair, space enough to roll around, and in some cases, a roll-in shower with a fold-down seat. I’ve heard plenty of stories from Sylvia where she asked the hotel clerk if they had accessible rooms, only to find out that only meant they had a couple bars in the shower and near the toilet. Ask the hotel manager if you really want to be sure. (And don’t be afraid to ask for a photo of the facilities.)

“Are there wheelchairs available for rent at my destination?”
There are plenty of stories about someone’s primary (or only) wheelchair getting damaged on a flight, rendering it unusable. While you don’t need to rent a chair every time you travel, you should at least make sure there’s a backup option at your destination. Keep their number in your phone in case the need comes up.

“Does your attraction have a wheelchair ramp or other options?”
Visiting the beach doesn’t have to mean sitting back on the road looking out at the ocean while everyone else is out on the sand. There are special wheelchairs with fat tires that can roll out on the beach (imagine if a wheelchair and a dune buggy had a baby), and wheelchair mats called Mobi-Mats, which are roll-up mats that can be unrolled on the sand and allow wheelchair users to get right out on the beach.

Make a list of all the places you want to visit and contact each of them to ask if they have a wheelchair ramp and/or elevator to get to other levels. Most museums, concert venues, theaters, restaurants, ballparks, and other attractions have access and special seating (when needed), but you still want to call and make sure. Again, if you’re not sure, ask. Call a couple times if you have to, because you may get contradicting information.

What are my best options?

Sylvia on a Celebrity Cruise on Formal Night, part of another accessible vacation

Sylvia on a Celebrity Cruise on Formal Night

Cruise ships are usually a good option, because many of them cater to older adults who are already dealing with mobility issues. (Sylvia loves cruises because they’re the easiest ways for wheelchair users to see the world.) The ships are built to be wheelchair friendly, have wider doors, large public spaces, and room between the tables and chairs in the dining room. Still, make sure you ask the cruise ship booking agent about any special arrangements you need to make.

Theme parks are also usually a great bet, especially the bigger ones. From what I’ve seen, Disney World and Universal Orlando are both very accessible and they have special cars, elevators, and ramps for people with mobility issues. They also rent scooters at each park.

Bottom line: if you have a disability and you want to travel, there’s a way to do it. If you’re not sure how you’re going to get it done, you can do a ton of research or you can call a travel agent and ask them for some help.

Do you have accessibility or mobility issues to consider when you travel and take vacations? If you’ve got any tips, suggestions, or ideas, please share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Sylvia Longmire (SpinTheGlobe.net, Used with permission)

Try the Local, State, or Regional Foods on Your Next Trip

January 25, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Certain cities, states, and regions are known for a particular dishes or foods, and if you want the real thing, you may only find it when you’re actually in that area, even if it’s offered in other parts of the country.

For example, every New Yorker insists that New York style pizza is only good when it’s made and served in New York. New York style pizza is not the same thing in North Carolina, North Dakota, or Nevada. That only means it’s thin, but it doesn’t taste the same. At least, so the New Yorkers tell me.

“It’s the water!” they declare, although I’ve often heard it pronounced as “wooder” as well. They say the same thing about “real New York bagels.” I have to say, there’s something to what they’re telling me. I’ve been to New York, and I’ve had New York style pizza in Florida and Indiana, and there’s a big difference.

The South is known for its barbecue, although the sauces and meats may vary from state to state. In most of the South, they prefer barbecuing pulled pork, w

Chicago Dog - One of the great regional foods out of the Chicagoland area

This is a Chicago style hot dog — tomatoes, white onions, neon green sweet relish, sport peppers, mustard, a pickle, and celery salt. BUT NO KETCHUP!

hile in Kansas City, it’s ribs, and in Texas, they prefer beef brisket.

The sauces have a regional flavor as well. For example, South Carolina leans toward a mustard-based sauce, while Georgia goes for a more tomato-based one. And in the city of Savannah, where the two cultures meet, you can find a heavenly sauce that combines the best of both worlds. (I’ve made it a few times myself, and it’s amazing.)

In my old home state of Indiana, we have our official state sandwich and official state pie — the state legislature voted on it and everything — the breaded pork tenderloin and the Wick’s sugar cream pie.

I’ve only ever seen the breaded pork tenderloin in Indiana and Iowa, as well as a Florida restaurant opened by a friend and former Hoosier, but I haven’t found the sugar cream pie (also called an old-fashioned cream pie) outside my home state. If anyone has a lead where I can find some, other than mail order, let me know. I’m dying for a slice of Indiana heaven!

Chicago, New York, and Atlanta are all known for their signature hot dogs (visit The Varsity as you’re driving through Atlanta on I-75), and each city will fight over whose dog is superior. My favorite is the Chicago Dog, but the Southern slaw dog — a Varsity favorite — is a close second. (Despite New York’s claims on the best pizza, I don’t think they can claim superiority for their ketchup-only red hots.)

And I can get the best hot dogs in all of Florida, as Orlando’s own Hot Dog Heaven was recently named best in the entire state! (It’s just 14 miles from my house, and I can be there in 25 minutes.)

Nashville, Tennessee is no slouch in the hot dog department either though. While I haven’t been able to partake — I was in Nashville last year and I forgot to try them — one of the food travel programs devoted an entire 30 minutes to the Music City’s hot dog’s, and they’re spoiled for choices.

Of course, every major city with a meat packing history is going to lay claim to some of the best steaks. Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas all boast the best steaks in the country, but there are several great steak places elsewhere (a tip of the hat to my favorite, St. Elmo’s in Indianapolis). And since the best steaks are usually dry aged, don’t let anyone try to BS you about the “freshness” of steaks. Unlike fish, a good steak should be aged for several days, which means you can find a good one in nearly any major city in the country.

But for a real treat, you have to try a cook-your-own steakhouse at least once. I loved Alexander’s Steakhouse in Bloomington, Illinois, although there are several around the country. Other hidden gems are the Beef House Restaurant in Covington, Indiana and The Iowa Beef Steak House in Des Moines, Iowa.

Speaking of fish, I have two rules I live by when it comes to seafood.

  1. I don’t care where you live, never eat gas station sushi. (I don’t have to explain this, do I?)
  2. Never order the fish in a fancy restaurant on a Monday. As Anthony Bourdain explains in Kitchen Confidential, fish is only fresh in most restaurants on Fridays and Tuesdays. This is why you get a lot of seafood salad specials on Mondays and Thursdays; the fish is still acceptable to eat, but it’s starting to taste a little, well, fishy by then.

And while you can get fresh fish nearly anywhere, thanks to high-speed deliveries — fish caught Thursday shows up in the restaurants on Friday, less than 24 hours later — I have gotten to be quite the seafood snob these days.

When my family and I want truly fresh seafood, we’ll head to Melbourne, Florida or even St. Augustine, and eat in one of the small restaurants on the water. There are a few that offer daily specials, which is whatever the local fishermen brought in that morning.

When you travel, take some time to pick a few restaurants in advance. Don’t just show up at the hotel and ask the front desk clerk for a nearby recommendation. That’s how you get stuck in a national chain restaurant serving boil-in-a-bag food.

Ask some locals for their recommendations, or see if the city has a weekly alternative newspaper, which is geared toward locals, and reviews their best local restaurants.

Or before you go, look online, find out what that city or state is best known for, and then check Yelp, Google Maps, or Trip Advisor to see who’s got the best of whatever the local delicacy is. Call ahead and make reservations before you leave town to ensure you get a seat.

Finally, try to visit the restaurant early enough during your trip that if you decide to go back or find someone else’s version of the same dish, you can better immerse yourself in the local dining experience.

What are some of your favorite regional foods? I’ve only been to California and Oregon a few times, so I don’t know what their best known dishes are, other than wine and craft beer. What do you recommend for the next time I’m in the City of Roses? Share your favorites and recommendations in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Arnold Inuyaki (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

Five Travel Memoirs to Scratch That Road Trip Itch

December 14, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

While I’m not a roving nomad like, say, Nomadic Matt, who has spent several years traveling the globe, I have put a lot of miles on my car and on my feet. And there’s nothing better than a good travel memoir to stir up those wanderlust feelings and make me start thinking about the other end of the road.

Sometimes reading the book is enough to scratch the itch, and at other times, reading them only makes me want to throw some shirts into a bag and drive to visit a friend for a few days. But despite being a travel writer for several years, I’m not a fan of the guidebook style of writing, telling you where to go, where to stay, or the best times to visit the sights.

I prefer travel memoirs, stories about why the author did the things they did or what they felt when they saw what they saw. I’m more interested in the story of the journey than the cost of the destination.

So here are my five favorite travel/road trip memoirs that I strongly recommend any traveler reads before their next big trip, whether it’s a minivan road trip to Disneyland or a 16-hour flight halfway around the world. These are the five books that hold a special place of honor on my shelves and I return to whenever I’m feeling cooped up at home.

Erik Deckers' favorite travel memoirs

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig). My first encounter with this book was during my Intro to Philosophy class in college, and it became a constant in my life. I still own the original copy I bought back in 1985, although I purchased another copy to read since the original is about ready to disintegrate. A novel within a novel within a philosophical treatise, ZAMM is the pursuit of the definition of Quality as a philosophical construct, a flashback journey where the hero seeks his own answers and sanity, and a motorcycle road trip for a father and his young son. And all three stories collide together in a way that makes this a novel of a generation. I called it “my generation’s On The Road” more than once,” and it’s a title well-deserved.
  2. The Sun Also Rises. (Ernest Hemingway). One of the first travel memoirs I ever truly loved, Hemingway’s 1926 novel about a group of American and English tourists who travel around Spain to watch bullfighting and the famed running of the bulls made me wish for the simple life of sitting in cafes and day drinking. Of course, that’s never been anything I’ve ever aspired to — the best I can do is sit in a coffee shop and get jittery on lattes — but the story made me dream about how exciting living in a foreign land for several months could be. If you want a glimpse into what Gertrude Stein labeled “The Lost Generation,” start with Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical look at his 1925 travels in Spain.
  3. On The Road and Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac). I cheated and picked two books since they’re both semi-autobiographical about the author. On The Road is about Sal Paradise (Jack) and his best pal, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy), and their journey across the country in search of meaning, poetry, and a good conversation. Dharma Bums is about Ray Smith (Jack) and his best pal, Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), as they climb a mountain in search of meaning, poetry, and the Buddha. Jack wrote Dharma Bums at a little house in College Park, Orlando, while he waited for On The Road to be published. That house later became the Kerouac House writers residency, where I was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence.
  4. Motorcycles I Have Loved: A Memoir (Lily Brooks-Dalton). When I first heard that a 20-something had written a memoir, I wondered what exactly it was that a 20-something could teach anyone about life. Then I read it and all was made clear: a lot. Lily Brooks-Dalton, fellow Kerouac House writer-in-residence, made me want to ride motorcycles in a way that only Robert Pirsig ever did. She details her first efforts at riding and then buying a motorcycle, learning how it handled, and the problems she encountered when she bought one that was too big for her. It helped me understand that owning a motorcycle is more about feeling comfortable on what you’re riding, not horsepower and loud engines. If it wasn’t for a promise I made my favorite uncle when I was 8, I’d own a motorcycle right now, and Lily would be the reason I did.
  5. The Bruno, Chief Of Police series (Martin Walker). While not technically travel memoirs — in fact, it’s a French murder mystery series — author Martin Walker paints such a lovely picture of the Perigord region of France that every time I read one of his books, I want to go there in the worst way. Bruno Courreges is the chief of police in the fictional town of St. Denis where he knows everyone, plays rugby and tennis, hunts and grows his own vegetables, at least when he’s not solving murders with international implications. Walker’s descriptions of the French countryside, as well as Bruno’s own gourmet cooking creations, makes me want to spend six months living in France as Bruno does. Of all these books I’ve listed, nothing gives me the travel itch more than a new Bruno mystery.

What are some of your favorite travel memoirs? Do you have any that inspire you to leave the house, or any that you return to whenever you want to remember a favorite place? Share some of your favorite books in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Prepare for a Road Trip With Your Mobile Phone

November 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m getting ready to leave for an 7-hour road trip today (Tuesday), from Orlando to Pensacola, so I can read some of my humor columns at their annual Foo Foo Festival. (By the time this publishes, it will be the day of my reading!) I’ve never made the drive, but I’ve traveled I-75 many times, so I know what to expect. But there’s still some planning and preparation I need to make before I head to Pensacola.

1. Figure out what time to leave.

The Waze app shows you the best and fastest routes to take on your road trip.

The Waze app shows you the best and fastest routes to take on your road trip.

I always show up to a conference or event the day before I have to speak, in case something goes wrong en route. But I’m also worried about traffic. I know what time traffic gets heavy around Gainesville, so I need to get through there a couple hours before or after. I use Waze to help me determine the worst times for rush hour traffic and plan accordingly. I also try to leave Orlando before rush hour begins for the same reason.

2. Check the weather on the route.
One year, when I lived in Indianapolis, we were in danger of being iced in 24 hours before we were scheduled to leave for a Florida trip. So we packed up in a hurry and headed out of town, getting about seven hours away and out of the range of the storm. We learned it’s always a good idea to be flexible in our plans if we’re traveling during a particularly harsh weather season. We have always turned to the Weather Channel’s trip planner function that will show you the expected weather along your route. This can let you plan for inclement weather and allow yourself a little extra time, or hunker down in a hotel, during a storm. Weather Underground has a similar trip planner on its website.

3. Pre-plan your stops.
While you don’t need to plan every gas stop and restroom break, you should at least have an idea of when and where you’ll break for meals. Don’t just do the whole fast food drive through thing though. For one thing, that’s a little boring for the palate, but it’s also not as healthy as getting a decent meal at a sit-down restaurant. Plus, the high carbs could make you sleepy in the afternoon. Instead, try some interesting and local restaurants; check out the RoadFood website or TVFoodMaps, an app that shows you all the different places that have been featured on the different TV programs.

4. Include a fun stop or two
There may be a few tourist sites you want to explore on your road trip, so allow yourself some extra road time. I’ve been wanting to see the Lodge cast iron cookware factory near Monteagle, Tennessee for several years, and I’m hoping this time will be my chance to see it. If you don’t have anything planned, leave some extra time anyway, in case you make an unexpected discovery along the way. Whether it’s an outlet mall, museum, or one of those small-town pecan stores — is it “pe-KAHN” or “PEE-cann?” — in Georgia, take a break and enjoy the actual “road” part of your road trip.

5. Entertain yourself

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip

Normally, I would take a plane instead of making a 7-hour drive, but I have a few reasons for doing so. For one, it’s an issue of price — I’m taking my family, so it’s not an effective use of our money. For another, I enjoy driving, so I always love a good road trip. Plus, I get to catch up on some of my favorite podcasts while everyone else sleeps.

I recommend the Overcast app for podcasts, and the NPR news app for finding local stations along, or just use the NPR One app to listen to public radio news, shows, and podcasts on demand (like Decoder Ring Theatre’s Red Panda audio theater adventures; they produced a few of my radio plays a few years ago). And of course, there are a plethora of music streaming apps — Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Music — to choose from if you don’t like your local radio choices while you’re on the road.

How do you plan for a road trip? Do you plan and map out your route, or just jump in the car and head in that direction, hoping for the best? Share your strategies with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit (Waze): Erik Deckers (used with permission)
Photo credit (Overcast): Erik Deckers (used with permission)

How Waze and Google Maps Work on Your Phone

August 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It was May 2016, and I was on my way to Indianapolis, driving from Orlando. As I was nearing Atlanta, my phone beeped frantically. It was my GPS app, Waze, telling me to exit in a half mile.

I had learned from experience to always follow Waze, so I got over and exited onto some county highway just in time. As I exited, I saw cars stopping on the highway, backing up almost to the exit, the line stretching up as far as I could see

I followed the new directions, driving along county roads east of Atlanta. It took 30 minutes, and Waze finally deposited me back onto the highway, 10 miles north of where I had exited, back into the traffic jam I had left. I was back in the same line of traffic, but only for one mile, and I was only stuck in it for 20 minutes.
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Travel Tech to Make Your Trips A Little Easier in 2017

August 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Every year, there are new gadgets and apps to that promise to make our traveling life a little easier. Whether it’s a cell phone attachment that works as a digital scale and a battery charger, or a coffee shop guide app that shows you all the coffee houses in the world’s major cities, there are lots of new things that can help you make your next trip much easier and enjoyable.

These are a few of the different gadgets, gizmos, and gewgaws to consider getting before your next family vacation.

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I'm on the road

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I’m on the road


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Does Your State Have a Tourism Trail?

July 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

If you’re ever looking for a short vacation you can do close to home, but don’t know where to start, try a tourism trail. A tourism trail typically focuses on food, alcohol, history, or sports, and is usually created by tourism boards or local businesses.

For example, Indiana has six separate wine trails, all created by the Indiana Wine Grape Trail. Covering different parts of the state, you can spend a day or two each on trails in southeastern Indiana, northeastern Indiana, or Indianapolis.

But if you don’t want Indiana wine, there are wine trails in nearly every state. Check out America’s Wine Trails to pick a wine trail in your favorite part of the country or something close to home.

When I was a travel writer in Indiana, I even devised an Indiana Microbrewery Trail. It’s a fantasy beer trip around the Hoosier state, in three parts, each taking two days.

The Woodford Reserve Distillery is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Tourism Trail

The Woodford Reserve Distillery is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail


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