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)

Four Spring Break Ideas for the Whole Family

January 11, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

The new year has begun and we’re already thinking about Spring Break ideas? Well, if most of you were hit by the sudden bomb cyclone weather last week, I’m sure you’re dreaming about warmer weather. Plus, I know a lot of people from New Orleans flee the city during Mardi Gras, while many Bostonians head south during the week of President’s Day, since they get the entire week off.

If you just want to get out of Dodge for a little while, but you maybe don’t want to hit the typical college hot spots, here are a few Spring Break ideas for you. There’s something to do for the whole family, but these are also great places to eat and experience the local culture.

1. Portland, Oregon

If I had to move anywhere else in the country, I’d head to Portland. It may rain quite a bit, but it’s usually a light rain, and not the major storms we get in the Midwest. It also has low humidity and surprisingly few mosquitoes. It’s a great place for excellent food and craft beer, as well as plenty of festivals, theater, and the arts.

There are several museums, including the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI, pronounced AHM-zee), the Portland Art Museum, the Portland Children’s Museum, and the Oregon Maritime Museum. There’s also the Oaks Amusement Park and North Clackamas Aquatic Park for some fun.

Plus you’re a couple of hours away from the beach (I especially love Lincoln City), and Mount Hood if you want to go hiking. If you like outdoor activities, Oregon has a lot to do, and you can do a lot of it within a couple hours of Portland. And the rainfall is less between winter and summer, so a March spring break trip wouldn’t be as rainy as, say, May or September.

2. Nashville, Tennessee

This city is great if you have older kids. While you probably can’t go cruising the bars with them, there are several restaurants that have musical acts in the late afternoon and early evening. Take them out for some music and dinner as you check out some of the sights around the city.

There’s also the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Zoo, the Parthenon, and Opryland (which also has an amusement park). If you want to pay homage to the entertainment pioneers of the south, there’s the Johnny Cash Museum and Cafe, Willie Nelson and Friends Museum, Patsy Cline Museum, and of course, Cooter’s Place in Nashville, a museum dedicated to the Dukes of Hazzard. Or if Spring Training is over, you could catch a ball game with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds baseball team, or a Nashville Predators hockey game.

Finally, if you’re a rock and roll fan, don’t forget to check out Third Man Records, Jack White’s record store and recording studio. He’s doing some interesting things with vinyl records, so it’s worth a look if you’re into vinyl at all.

3. Dallas, Texas

Actually, anywhere south of Nashville is going to be a lot warmer than the Midwest and Northeast at this time of year. But Dallas is a large enough city in one of the biggest states in the country, which means there’s a lot to do, and it’s going to be plenty warm.

You can visit the Dallas Museum of Art, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the African American Museum, and Dallas Heritage Village, which is like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Indiana’s Conner Prairie.

If you’re looking for some fun activities, there’s Six Flags Over Texas or the smaller Zero Gravity Thrill Jump Park. But if you’re interested in sports, check out the Dallas Mavericks for basketball; the Texas Rangers will open at home against the Houston Astros on March 29th; and the Dallas Stars have a few games at home in March.

4. St. Augustine, Florida

Aviles Street in St. Augustine - one of my favorite Spring Break ideas

Aviles Street in St. Augustine, Florida

It’s right on the beach, but it’s not one of the college hotspots. As the United States’ oldest city, it has too much educational and historical significance to be of interest to college students. Or your kids, but who says Spring Break has to be all about amusement parks and kiddie fun time?

St. Augustine was originally a Spanish outpost and colony, so it’s known for its Spanish colonial architecture. Anastasia State Park is a protected wildlife sanctuary and you can check out the St. Augustine Wild Reserve, a nonprofit animal sanctuary. There are also plenty of old sites to check out, including the Fountain Of Youth Archaeological Park, Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, and the El Galeon Ship.

Walk around historic St. George Street, and you can see the oldest wooden school, the old jail, and plenty of interesting shops. You can also ride around on the hop-on-hop-off trolley tour to get around town and hear a little about the place while you’re riding.

The last time we were there, my family and I ate at The Conch House Restaurant, which is right on the main pier overlooking the Bay. But if you’re in the mood for seafood, there are more restaurants than you’ll be able to visit in a single week. And since they’re right on the water, the seafood is always going to be fresh.

Where do you go for Spring Break? Do you have any good Spring Break ideas? Share them with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Phoo credit: paulbr7 (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Four Post-Holiday Return Travel Tips

December 28, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A month ago, you couldn’t swing a full Christmas stocking without hitting an article about pre-holiday travel plans, and what you were allowed to bring on a flight and what you couldn’t.

Things like “don’t pre-wrap gifts in case the TSA needs to check them” and “Pies are allowed through TSA security checkpoints” are very helpful to know.

But what about going home? What special things do you need to know about that?

If you’re like most people, going home usually sees less careful packing, a lot more chaos, and an increased chance of leaving something behind. You’ve got gifts to fit into your bags and you have to get to the airport on time, or you have to hit the highway while everyone else is heading home too.

Here are four ways to avoid stress at the airport or on the road during your post-holiday return travel trip.

1. Remember, the 3-1-1 rule always applies, even on sealed bottles.

If you got a bottle of Scotch, wine, or even a bottle of perfume, even if it’s sealed up, you can’t carry it onto the flight with you. You are allowed to check it in your luggage though, but you want to make very sure it’s well-padded.

Fodor’s Travel Guide recommends you wrap a bottle in clothing a couple of times to protect it:

One method involves putting the wine bottle in a sock, wrapping a piece of clothing around the bottle’s neck until it’s as wide as the bottom of the bottle, and then wrapping the bottle with additional clothing pieces (like shirts). You can add a watertight plastic bag for some extra security. Travelers can also use bubble wrap, instead of clothing, to wrap the bottle, which adds some additional protection for the journey.

2. Ship your gifts home instead of carrying them.

I hope you left plenty of room in your suitcase for the return trip home for all the gifts you got. If you didn’t, you can fill up another suitcase and check it, paying the checked bag fee.

Better yet, you can ship your gifts via UPS or USPS and not have to deal with them until you get home. If you send them the day before you leave, you can also make sure you get home before the gifts arrive. While the costs will vary, there’s a decent chance it will be less than the checked luggage costs, and you won’t have to horse that suitcase around the airport and back to your car.

3. You can bring back leftovers, but they need to be frozen solid.

The TSA will allow frozen eggnog to be taken onto flights during your holiday return travel trip. The TSA will allow things like eggnog or Grandma’s famous wildebeest gravy, but it must be frozen solid and in a cooler. You can also use those freezer packs to keep everything cold, but they must also be frozen solid.

Also, keep in mind that if you carry on a cooler, that counts as one of your carry-on items: you still get a carry-on bag and a personal item that’s small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you. So if your cooler is a third item, check the carry-on bag or pack the personal bag in the carry-on. Don’t try to cheat and bring on the third item.

(And just ask Grandma for the gravy recipe in the future.)

4. Get the travel apps for your travel method.

I’ve harped again and again on having the right apps on your phone for travel: your airline’s mobile app (which lets you check in 24 hours before your flight) and/or Waze, the real-time GPS app that shows you traffic jams and accidents.

No matter what other apps you get, you need a GPS app and your airline app if you want to avoid the travel hassles our parents dealt with when we were kids.

If you don’t have those installed yet, install them and set them up before you head home. Take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with them, and try to do it a day or two before you leave. You can always use Waze to help you get back to the airport on January 2nd, because you can avoid any traffic delays and get there on time. And of course, the app will help you check in faster and avoid the whole check-in line.

And if you still have to check bags, check them at the porter stand outside the airport and then use the app to check in. Just don’t forget to get to the airport two hours early.

What are some of your post-holiday return travel tips? How do you reduce your headaches when you’re heading back home? Share your best tips in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Konstantin RyabitsevM/small>

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.

Take Vacations During Off-Peak Travel Times

November 30, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the greatest joys I have as a traveler is going to a normally-busy place sometime in the off-season and feeling like I have the entire place to myself. Mackinac Island, Disney World, overseas trips to Germany and The Netherlands. They all feel like a private playground when I visit while everyone else is at work or school.

It’s like I’ve discovered a secret location that only a few people know about. We all stroll casually around, smiling at each other, knowing we’re in on the same secret. You can walk up to rides, there are no lines for museums and exhibits, there’s no one on the beach, and you can get seated within minutes during normal meal times And you’re spoiled for choices when choosing a hotel room at an inexpensive rate. It’s glorious!

I’ve also been in Disney World, Chicago, and several resort towns during peak vacation times, and it’s — well, let’s just say I didn’t feel so special on those days. Hotels are expensive, traffic is evacuate-before-a-disaster heavy, you’ll wait for a week at a restaurant, and the crowds are so big that even an extrovert like me just wants to crawl under the covers for a week.

As a result, my family has been a regular practitioner of traveling during off-peak times. Hotels cost a lot less, there are often discount packages available for some destinations, and you can get a more personalized experience as the staff can focus more attention on you, or at least not be so harried when they try to help you.

So I’m very interested in Offpeak.io. It’s a website that analyzes the travel times in major cities and give you an idea of what’s a peak travel time versus an off-peak time in a chosen city, so you can book your travel plans accordingly. The site is still in beta, but what I’ve seen so far is pretty spot on.

You can use Offpeak.io to find out if there are any major events going on in your chosen city — sporting events, festivals, and holidays — what the weather should be like, and even check the average hotel rates and number of available hotels.

The results appear in a bar graph showing occupancy rates. The smaller the bar, the more rooms there are; the higher the bar, the more crowded everything is going to be. The hotel room rates follow the median price for a hotel room too: higher bars mean higher expected rates.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The end of January and early February are always off-peak travel times because there are no major holidays, and everyone is back at school (which makes running around Disney World a dream!). You can find hotel rooms for a median rate of $78 on a February weekday in Edinburgh, Scotland, but then the weather is cold and rainy at that time. A comparable hotel in Boston will cost $189, which is pretty cheap for Boston, but the city is going to be most likely buried under a foot of snow.

Offpeak.io has information on 111 cities, including Amsterdam, Mexico City, Osaka, Cape Town, and Melbourne. But no Indianapolis, Offpeak? Seriously? You’ve got Cleveland in there, but not Indianapolis? (Hint: The end of May is horrible for finding a hotel in Indianapolis, especially on the west side. If you’re not going for the Indy 500, stay on the northeast side.)

Be sure to pay attention to the weather in your area, and plan your travel methods accordingly. You may find a cheap hotel rate in Boston and Chicago in January or February, but you can almost count on the weather being a factor in any cancelled flights, highway closures, and hotel availability. On the other hand, when are you going to find hotel nights that cheap in Boston and Chicago at any other time of the year?

When do you like to travel? Do you go the same time as everyone else and just fight the crowds? (You’re a better person than I am!) Or do you like to go when no one else is around? Share your strategies with us 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)

Family Vacations: Airbnb Versus Hotels?

October 26, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

How do you feel about staying in someone else’s home during family vacations? I don’t mean visiting family during your holiday break (which is no picnic, let me tell you). I mean renting someone else’s house for a night, a week, or even a few weeks?

If you’re traveling somewhere for a few days on one of your family vacations, would you rather rent a hotel room with a brand you can trust so you can get an experience you can expect? Or would you rather be adventurous, stay in a place that lets you experience the real part of a city, and have a lot more space than you would in a cramped hotel room?

I’ve had a chance to stay in both Airbnbs and hotels over the years, and I’m actually having a hard time deciding which I prefer. Not my wife though. She’s insistent: no staying in other people’s houses. She’s only done it once, and then only because it was way cheaper than a hotel room. Otherwise, she doesn’t like it.

She just doesn’t like the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s bed, using their sheets, occupying their space. I’m less worried about it. For one thing, they always put clean sheets on the bed. For another, they’re never around (I always get the “whole house” rentals, never an “own room”).

Airbnb is a great way to find an inexpensive place to stay during family vacations
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Try Some Winter Family Getaways This Season

October 12, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

I like winter. I like the bracing cold. I like the snow, although I don’t like the ice so much. I like seeing my breath and feeling little icicles form on my mustache. I love walking outside during the first snowfall when everything is so quiet because the snow has absorbed the sound.

Of course, I don’t get that here in Central Florida. We barely cracked the low 40s this past winter, and I miss it. Mostly.

So if I want a winter getaway, I’ve got a few places I would like to go in December or even January to get my snow fix for the year. Maybe you can check one of them out this coming winter and tell me how it goes.

Vermont/New Hampshire/Maine
I once spent a couple summer days at The Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Hollow, New Hampshire. It was gorgeous, and I nearly got to spend the summer there. I also remember wishing I could come back for the winter, because they had some great winter activities as well: horseback riding, winter hikes, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, bonfires, and sitting inside by the fire with a book laughing at the weirdos out in the cold.
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