IMG_E0452

10 Insider Tips Driving Luggage Choice

When I was embarrassed enough to want to keep my suitcase in the car, rather than bring it into my host’s home, I knew it was time to let go of old baggage – literally. But the plethora of options is so overwhelming, the experience had me procrastinating as badly as when I am forced into the market to buy a car.

With humiliation as my motivator, I engaged on the hunt for the perfect-for-now set of two bags. What makes a bag perfect for now? Just like car shopping, everyone has different preferences that drive their decision. Below are the top ten considerations that drove my selection process.

  1. Time to try a hard shell case. The soft case that served as a cat hammock under my bed is history. The hair is no longer 100% removable, and I’m done expending the energy attempting to get “most of it” off. How efficient is keeping my bag half-packed, if I have to use 50 sheets of a new lint roller refill each time I choose to grab and go?
  2. I’m thrifty, so price is important. I travel enough to justify new bags here and there, so investing a fortune in bags is not on my radar. Li and I constantly ask ourselves, “Would I rather buy this or relax with an umbrella drink on a tropical beach?” The lure of the umbrella drink protects our wallets long enough to savor “experiences” over “stuff.”
  3. Brand matters. When inspecting quality, off brands just don’t measure up to proven standard brands. Luxury brands catch my eye, but I just can’t go there. While leather Gucci bags are enticing, I have just purchased yet another Samsonite duo. While I didn’t set out to be brand loyal, I tend to lean toward Samsonite. For some reason, I have chosen Samsonite for nearly 40 years. (Mental note: Buy Samsonite stock.)
  4. Don’t risk a cheap zipper. Poor zipper quality and construction are instant deal-breakers. I’d be mortified to have my suitcase spill my secrets onto the floor of an airport.
  5. Inspect the gusset fabric. Most bags tend to have a zippered gusset that allows me to bring more home than I left with. Close inspection revels that the weave is not as tight on bargain bags, thus less durable. While I do pack clothing with the intention of leaving it behind for the maids and their families, I still somehow need to unzip and make room for more wine, coffee, and art on my return flight (Pack Rat, Will Travel). Cheap gusset fabric is simply risky.
  6. Test the height of the fully extended telescopic pull. I have long legs, and hunching over to pull my bag through an airport is agony. I learned this the hard way, traveling to Europe with a too short bag and no chiropractor to save me.
  7. The lighter the better. The best thing about ditching my old bags is knowing that I will never have to lift that carry-on into the overhead again in my life. While many times a male hero steps in to help, I have struggled with first hoisting the bag to my seat back (while still in an upright position), then transferring it to the to the top of my head to get it just one more “oomph” into the overhead.
  8. Find wheels that glide like a Hot Wheels car on a twisty track. I drag bags around the store to check wheel bearings. I inspect the way they are attached to the suitcase. Heavy duty rivets – check! My luggage gets dragged over some rocky terrain, and the wheels had better not fail my sense of adventure. 360° rotation is a must. It’s for this reason I chose not to order online; I opted to peruse every Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Ross and Burlington Coat Factory in a 30 mile radius. For the record, Burlington Coat Factory’s discounted prices were typically $10 less per bag on exact same brands and features. (Colors were different in every single store.)
  9. Interior dividers help keep me organized.  I keep my carry-on pre-packed, under my bed, awaiting our next escape. It helps me to have my smaller items like travel make-up and toiletries, a mini-curling iron, and a small first-aid kit ready to go. Check out my Top 10 Must Pack Items to learn more about packing.
  10. Color does count. Gone are the days I just want my suitcase to blend in. I just won’t buy black bags. I now prefer to spot my bags from a mile away, and know that any thief wouldn’t dare drag noticeably colorful bags off the carousel and out the door.  Yet, as I previously blogged about how much I want to outsmart thieves, I do not want to drag UGLY through the airport. And I am reasonably sure I would tire of a print – so a bright solid it is. My previous big bag for check-in, under the cat hair, was red. My carry-on was kinda purple. This time I struggled over blue and silver, before settling on the blue. It was not until I rolled my bags toward the cash register that I realized they are not just any blue; they are MeetUatGate.com blue!

IMG_E0452

Long-Haul Flight Survival Tips

Nobody enjoys the dreaded long haul flight. They’re uncomfortable, awkward, and the bane of many a traveler. I’m used to 5 to 7 hour flights, but my 35+ hour economy class odyssey from Atlanta to Phnom Penh was an entirely different adventure. Below are a few tips for making your next long-haul flight as smooth as possible

Seat Selection – can make all the difference. As I planned on sleeping for at least half of the trans-pacific leg I picked a window seat on the side of the airplane that mirrored my preferred side of the bed so that I could lean into  the wall. This also meant that the other passengers in the row didn’t have to wake me when they needed to move.

Entertainment – is key. Check the airline rules carefully, because your US domestic preparations might not work. The electronics ban on flights from some countries to the US means that you can’t rely on your tablet or laptop for distraction. Additionally, Chinese regulations do not allow the use of “airplane mode” on your smart device, so all phones must by powered off for the entire flight. Two women were jailed recently for failure to comply, so no sneaking around. Many airplanes do have touch screen entertainment centers for each seat, like my Chinese Eastern Airlines flight, fully loaded with movies, music, and games. Your old mp3 player may be allowed, as long as it doesn’t have a cellular data option. I’m a knitter so I always bring some yarn and a pair of needles. Right now, most airlines allow knitting needles, but I’d recommend sticking to a wooden option.  Also, never underestimate the power of a good book. A few cheap paperbacks from a second-hand store are my weapon of choice, as they can be easily left behind for others to read and enjoy.

Snacks – can be a lifesaver. Even if your flight includes a meal service you can never be sure of what you might get. This is doubly true if you have allergies or any diet restrictions. Pre-packaged snacks are a safe option which insures that you’ll always have something to eat when you need it. I do like fruit when I travel, but you’re not always allowed to bring fresh produce with you when you travel internationally – even in your carry-on. I opt for granola or protein bars, nuts, and raisins.

Sleep – is a necessity for changing time zones. I don’t sleep easily on flights, but even a short nap is invaluable for a clear head with international layovers and flight changes. This past trip was my first time using melatonin and now I’m a believer. This in combination with my eye mask and earplugs were a necessity. Travel pillows or neck style pillows aren’t just for heads. I like to place mine in my lower back area for comfort and mum enjoys hers under her knees for bit of an angle. There’s also a lot to be said for having a blanket or scarf you can use as a cover. I like to pull mind up over my head to help block out light and its a visual cue to the cabin crew not to bother me (just make sure the seatbelt is on the outside).

Cleaning Up – can make all the difference. Face wipes, lotion, and tooth-brush and toothpaste in my carry on gave me the option to impersonate my normal evening and morning routines.  Just being able to wipe the re-circulated air off my face and bush my teeth was more relaxing than I could have imagined. A post-nap cleaning was refreshing and I arrived at my destination feeling less dirty than I typically do.

Easy Carry-On List for a Smoother Long-Haul Flight

  • head phones/ear buds
  • paper books/magazines
  • snacks
  • melatonin
  • travel pillow/neck pillow
  • eye mask
  • blanket/pashmina/large scarf
  • tooth-brush & toothpaste
  • pre-moistened face wipes
  • lotion for face & hands

Do you have any tips for long flights? Share it with us!

PackedCubesSm

My Top 10 Must Pack Items

On my quest to become a perfect packer (more at PackRat Will Travel), I have learned a few tricks. Below are the top ten items I will no longer travel without…

  1. Pitchable Ponchos
    I pack a few disposable rain ponchos for travel during rainy season, or to locations like the amazing city of London, where rain seems to be a year-round ordeal.  Visitors also underestimate the need for ponchos when vacationing in sunny Central Florida, where brief afternoon thundershowers are a daily occurrence. I typically find ponchos in the drug store for a couple of bucks each. They’re light, take up no room at all, and will prevent you from having to choose between overspending or modeling an unflattering-at-best plastic garbage bag. If your’re preparing to travel with a group, you can also order clear, disposable ponchos by the dozen for $19 at Uline.com.
    *Tip – if you hike into the Costa Rican rainforest, do not leave your rain ponchos in your rental car. http://www.meetuatgate.com/2016/04/30/thats-why-its-called-a-rain-forest/
  2. Techie Tool Kit
    A camera charger, a back-up battery, an extra SD chip, a cell phone charging cord, a Fitbit charging cord, a USB wall port and a USB car converter are my personal top tech needs. All tuck neatly in a transparent sandwich sized Ziplock. With three camera batteries and a cell phone to charge, I easily could employ three converters on an international trip. This summer, mistakenly packed only the converter I would need in Uruguay, South America. I neglected to research whether the same converter would work in Argentina. The answer was NO.
    *Tip – Save yourself some angst. Pack the complete kit, and be done with it.
  3. Pre-Packed Toiletries
    Since traveling intermittently for business in the ’80s, I have kept a grab-and-go toiletry bag packed at all times. When I return home, I refill what’s needed (like a fresh mosquito repellent bracelet) or add an item to my shopping list while it’s fresh on my mind. Among other necessities, I always have antibacterial wipes, my mini sewing kit, a magnifying mirror, a personal heating pad to fend off chills or sore muscles, and a small rubber door stop to wedge under my door for added security while in my room. My fully-packed catch-all bag resides in my small rolling carry on, providing a speedy way to skip town!
    *Tip – Hang a few safety pins from the bag’s zipper pull.
  4. Pretty Pill Box
    Ditch the bulky bottles. I photograph each bottle label with one easily identifiable pill, to ensure I have accurate documentation for two purposes; to verify my prescription while traveling, and to assist in case of a medical emergency. I take a full week in a pretty little pill sorter, with a few extras of my most important medications in case of a delay.
    *Tip – If you are prone to motion sickness, be sure to have your doctor prescribe Transderm patches for behind your ear.  Each works for three days – but the protection WILL wear off if you do not replace it by the end of day three. They fit right in the bottom of my pill case.
  5. Bubble Wrap
    I somehow gravitate towards bringing home “breakables.” So I pack a small roll of bubble wrap. I’ve carried home a vintage vase and a set of beautiful stoneware plates from England. I lugged a treasured pitcher from Paris, wrapped in a layer of bubble wrap, and padded with soft clothing. And I recently transported glass jars of goodies from South America. Yet, due to bubble wrap, I have yet to discover a broken artifact in my bags upon my return.
    *Tip – Consider shipping when you can; you’ll already have the bubble wrap!
  6. A Reusable Tote
    My favorite bags easily cover all bases, transforming between shopping bag, beach bag and “technology undercover bag” to deter thieves. I have very different preferences, depending upon mode of travel and destination. For international travel this inexpensive IKEA pocket-pouch converts into a generous sized backpack. For domestic air travel, I prefer a “personal item” that zips closed, like the duffel style bag available in our MeetUatGate online store. When driving, I prefer an open beach tote  stuffed with easy-to-reach road trip snacks.
    *Tip – The  IKEA pocket bags come in two sizes/styles and make great thank you gifts for travel hosts or new friends who you connect with during your travels. Take a few extra!
  7. Empty Ziplock Bags
    Ziplock bags ensure liquids like local sauces, liqueurs and perfumes do not leak onto your belongings. These also protect your fabrics from absorbing the scents of culinary herbs and seasonings you may want to take to or from your own home kitchen. I collect shells from each beach I visit, and the shells stay divided until I can display them. They also keep the tekkie tools listed above in one place. Quart and gallon sized ziplocks have a perpetual home in my rolling carry-on.
    *Tip – Pack a sharpie and clearly label your bubble wrapped and bagged items. I have this bag of beautiful, unlabeled stones…
  8. Wine Protectors 
    I must admit that I own both versions of these padded wine bags, and use them on nearly every trip. I carry wine, liquor or even olive oils to and fro in these great bags. My brief review: The WineSkin Wine Bag is more durable and a bit more attractive, but I like the heavy cotton absorbent padding in the Jetbag. I once carried a bottle of vino that sprung a slight leak  – and the potential mess was absorbed in my Jetbag, shielding  my clothing and new treasures from red wine..
    *Tip – The Jetbag accommodates BOTH a bottle of wine and a small bottle of sauce or olive oil (upside down and adorned in bubble wrap, of course. )
  9. Camera and Journal: With watercolor pencils and a waterbrush
    A few years ago I started creating a journal page depicting each trip.  I often have to finish them when I arrive home, but I have photos that spark vivid memories, allowing me to re-live sights, sounds and experiences. I write random things like names of kind waiters and foreign language snafus, sketch odd things like road signs and objects, and write descriptive entries about what I hear, see, and feel. The proportions of my scribbles are most times off, but my pages make me smile nonetheless. A waterbrush pen is a great tool for quick sketching on the move. The body of the pen is a water receptacle, so it stays moist without a cup of water nearby.
    *Tip – If you are unsure of your sketching skills, a small pad of tracing paper is your friend. Take rubbings of signs, portions of historic markers, foliage or textures and hand write your notes around them. Photograph or scan your “travel art” once home.
  10. Packing Cubes
    Last but not least, this year I became a packing cube convert! There are more expensive options, but the IKEA four-pack is an easy, inexpensive favorite as a start. For Li, packing cubes are about organization. For me it’s all about compression. When I traveled to South America for three weeks during their winter, I packed heavy sweaters, a sweatshirt, jeans and boots  – and could not believe how much could be rolled and stuffed into a single packing cube. The mesh allows the air to escape while you compress (sit on?) and zip the cube.
    This spring, I traveled to Cabo San Lucas with just a rolling carry-on and my clothing in just the three cubes pictured. The small cube contained five pairs of panties (hidden from view, thanks) and two swim suits, because what sane woman  could go to Mexico with only one? The mid-size cube contains a knit sundress, a pair of leggings, a casual knit dress that doubles as a beach cover-up, and a long sleeved tee. The largest cube is double-sided, with one side containing long cotton pants, a long knit skirt, two tanks,  a men’s white linen shirt, a cotton pashmina, and a strapless bra. The reverse side contained non-clothing items listed above like tech items, rain ponchos and journaling supplies. When I travel internationally, I pack clothing that I plan to leave behind. I plan for for the bubble wrapped treasures and of course, the wine bags full of goodies!
    Serial travelers may want to check out http://bestreviews.com/best-packing-cubes.
    *Tip – A clothing-packed cube doubles as a nice, firm travel pillow. Just pack it into a pillow case. I’ve even carried mine on my flight, as pillows count as neither a personal item nor a piece of luggage.

IMG_E0452

The Barking Carry-on Bag

I’m currently packing for a solo trip. Well, not exactly solo – I’m bringing my dog, Hondo. He’s a fairly seasoned traveler now, having joined me for both road trips and flights to seven different states. This time around, it’ll be a flight to California to visit friends.

Hondo peeks out at the other airline passengers

Preparing to fly with Hondo takes a little extra shuffling of my regular packing procedures. Normally my “personal item” would be my purse, fully equipped with books, snacks, and charged iPhone; this time it’ll contain a 14 pound hairball that barks. Most US domestic airlines allow you to take a small pet on board as a carry-on in exchange for one of your regular bags plus a fee (check with your airline for their policies).  In addition to having Hondo be my baggage (rim shot), I need to pack everything he’ll need along with my own items (see 1 week, 1 carry-on) in my remaining carry-on bag.  For a week in summer, here’s what I pack for him:

  • portioned food for 7 days, plus one extra day just in case
  • treats (bribery will get you everywhere)
  • 2 full rolls of poo bags
  • 2 travel bowls, one for food and one for water
  • any necessary medications
  • small toy and blanket with his sent on it
  • supply of puppy pads (for emergencies)
  • a few bandanas for style

Once we’re in the airport, he’s pretty much confined to his case. The one real test is going through security. Just as I have to empty my pockets and take off my belt, Hondo has to have his collar off before going through the metal detector in my arms. This isn’t the hard part; it’s getting him back into his collar and carrier at the end of the conveyor belt without him impersonating an eel and escaping my arms that’s the challenge.

Hawksbill mountain, Shenandoah National Park

To me, its worth the extra effort and worry to have Hondo traveling at my side. Just having him there soothes anxiety while pushing me to explore our surroundings. He might not understand the importance of the giant redwoods, the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, or the history of Olvera Street, but I know he enjoys being there with me.

If you’re looking to learn more about traveling with your small dog, check out Dog Jaunt.

 

IMG_E0452

Meltdown at SJO

I try to be a very careful and organized individual who keeps the drama level low. So its with great embarrassment I admit a total meltdown during our departure from Mexico.

img_1632-smimg_1635-2-smAfter an uneventful taxi ride, being the first through security, and a boring 90 minute wait with all the shops closed, Mum and I were the first in line to board our flight at Juan Sanatamaría International Airport. As I held out my passport and ticket to the gate agent, we both noticed that my departure paperwork wasn’t there (you know, that other half of the customs slip that you fill out when you arrive in a new country).  I stepped out of line and dug through my backpack, emptying it onto the floor. Nothing. The gate agent said I had to go back through security and to the Customs office to purchase a replacement. We had 10 minutes.

early morning in SJO
early morning in SJO

Mum and I ran back past security, down the stairs, to the Customs door… to find that it didn’t open for another 15 minutes. I literally crumbled. I was so embarrassed to have made a mistake that would affect my Mum that the closed door was enough to send me to my knees. As I muttered “I can’t believe it” and emptied my bag on the floor again, Mum went into action and found someone to open the office early. Inside, we were told that a replacement would cost $30 US in exact change. Between us we had $28.

I ran across  the airport to the other end of the floor to the ATM, which wouldn’t dispense in US dollars. Next, on to the money exchange. I would need my passport, which the Customs officer had. Run back across to Customs. Run back to exchange. Run back to Customs. Get new paper. Run back up stairs. Through security. Run to gate…

IMG_3295Just in time to see our airplane pulling back from the gate. We were too late. The stress of running, the embarrassment of being on the floor downstairs, and the thought that my mistake had affected my Mum was overwhelming to me. I started crying, dropped my bag, and kept saying to Mum “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Of course everything was fine in the end. We got a flight to the US that afternoon, arranged to meet up with some friends in Houston for the evening, and then home the next day. Mum wasn’t upset at all – it was just me.

Mistakes happen. Things go wrong. That’s part of life and part of travel. Its what creates adventure. And its ok to have a little drama. Sometimes I need to remind myself that there is no such thing as failure, its just an opportunity for a new experience.

IMG_E0452

Getting There is Half the Fun

Sometimes flight day is quiet and by-the-book. Other times it’s a complete adventure. This was the latter.

The journey to Cabo San Lucas was a multi-part process. Mum drove to my home the night before so we could take the same discounted flights. The lines at the security checkpoint in the morning were ridonkulous. We were lucky enough to get routed through an newly opened line, but people around us took more than 2hrs to get through.

Our first flight was delayed (even though the board said we left on time (never fully trust the board…). One of the flight attendants was stuck in an elevator between floors at his hotel… And the power has just gone out. Normally I’m a little frustrated by delayed flights, but for this one I really felt bad for the guy. I mean, it’s bad enough being stuck in an elevator, but in the dark with no power? No gracias.

Thankfully they got the poor man out and we made it to our connection flight with breathing room. As we start building speed for take off, it suddenly felt like the pilot slammed the breaks. Neither of us had ever had an aborted take off before – it’s a little nerve racking. The engine wasn’t powering up properly, so they emptied the plane and took it for testing. Some people grumbled about the time, but both mum and I were in the greatful-the-pilot-is-cautious camp.

So hours after we were supposed to arrive, mum and I find ourself safe in Mexico, sipping margaritas, and laughing. Because why not?

view of the Cabo San Lucas marina
IMG_E0452

Planning From Two Different Places

When most people plan a vacation, its from a single starting point for a family or individual. Mum and I live in different states which complicates the process. It takes at least an additional month of work to take care of all of the details. There’s a lot of emails, texts, and phone calls. They never end.

 

IMG_2290
Titusville, FL (July, 2015)

WHERE we go is a completely random process. The last few destinations (including this upcoming one) were chosen by the cheapest airfare we could find!  This is no small feat! Every search for a possible destination must be done at least twice: one for each departure point.  The difference can be negligible or it might be hundreds of dollars! Sometimes we decide that it makes more sense to go to the other’s home and fly out together.

That’s only the first step. Every single detail and decision is checked with the other person: taxis, rental cars, etc. I’m not into surprises (just ask mum!), so its usually me pestering her. I know that we’d each be happy to go along with the other person’s choice, but that’s just not us. We each really want to know the other person’s thoughts and make sure that we can both be comfortable.

That’s just how we roll.