Little Language Lesson: Thai Tips

December 2: Our Travel Advent Calendar continues today in Thailand, the “Land of Smiles”.

In any part of the world, savvy travelers know that attempting to speak the local language is key to a good experience. Not only is it polite to know your please and thank yous, most locals will not expect it and will be delighted by any attempt. It’s ok to make mistakes, it’s the effort that counts.

My friend Skyla Sorenson spent three months studying in Thailand, living with local families. She lived in rural Thai style, sleeping on mats and using “rustic” toilets. Aaaah, to be young and flexible! I bumped into her in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, and we got together for massages. She learned to speak the language and shared a few tips on getting by in Thai.

Thailand: the land of smiles, good food, and a seemingly impenetrable language barrier for Western travelers. Standard Thai is a tonal language, making it about as far away from the romance languages as you can get.

This means that one word can mean as many as five different things depending on how you say it. The word “ma” for example, can mean “dog,” when said in a rising tone, and “come,” when said in a flat tone.

Adding to this, Thai has an unrecognizable alphabet with a completely different set of vowels, consonants, and tones. But do not despair! Memorizing a handful of key phrases is very doable and will thrill any Thai person you come across.

*The following phrases are ones I learned over the course of three months living in Thailand. Because the Anglo alphabet doesn’t reflect the Thai alphabet very well, I’ve written the words as you would pronounce them.*

Here’s an easy first step—Your gender determines how to end sentences. If you identify as female, add “kaah” after everything you say. If you identify as male, end sentences with “krup.” The female ending is softer and more drawn out, while the male ending is said abruptly.

Pronunciation: The easiest way to make yourself understood without a full grasp of which tone goes where is to mimic people around you and pronounce things very clearly. Speak slowly, emphasizing every symbol. If someone doesn’t understand you at first, try saying the sentence again with different inflections. Think of each word and phrase like a roller coaster. To ask a question, like “sabai dii mai?” start on the flat part of the roller coaster and get higher at the end.

Greetings: Be overly polite and forward! Thailand didn’t earn the “Land of Smiles” label by being shy. When you walk into a restaurant, shop, hotel, or even when you’re walking down the street, greet people by saying “sawat di-kah” or “sawat di-krup.” This greeting is almost always accompanied by a gesture nicknamed the ‘Y.’ Put your palms together at your chest as if you’re praying and bow slightly while saying hello.

Thank yous: To say thank you, say “kop kun kah/krup.” If you’re really thankful, say “kop kun mah kah/krup.”  For good measure, add a ‘Y’ as you’re saying it.

Pleasantries: An easy phrase to add another level to your Thai vocabulary is “sa baai dii mai kah/krup.” This means, ‘how are you doing?’ Mai turns a sentence in a question. It’s also the closest word to “no.” Like English, the Thai language has an inflection on the end of questions, so you would pronounce it as you would in English. The response to this is, “sa baai,” if you are feeling fine, and “mai sa baai,” if you’re not doing well. Remember to add the proper endings. Use this phrase generously, it’s the equivalent of “what’s up?” in English.

Addressing people: The Thai language rarely uses I, you, and we. Instead, you refer to everyone by their age and name. Someone who is around your age but younger is “noong,” meaning younger sibling. Someone who could be your older sibling is “pii.” Someone who is old enough to be your aunt is “baa,” and someone old enough to be your uncle is “luung.” If you know a person’s name, put it after their age. For example, to anyone older than me, I would be “noong Skyla.” Don’t worry about getting an age wrong, no one will be offended. It’s fun to figure out how old someone is by asking, “ayu tao rai kah/krup?” and figuring out a way to count. If you’re worried about mixing up ages, “pii” is an easy default to use.

Introductions: To learn someone’s name, you ask them, “chuu a rai kah/krup?” The response is “chuu Skyla.” The name a person gives you will depend on how comfortable they are talking to you. If they give you a long response, that is their formal given name. A short response, like “pii Nit,” is their age and nickname. All Thai people are given a nickname early on in their life, based on what they resemble as a child. I’ve met people named bird, royal lady, spider, and even cucumber.

Food: Thai people love food. Spicy food. The most common thing you’ll hear at a restaurant or in someone’s home is, “gin pet dai mai?” which roughly translates to “eat spicy okay no?” If you want them to load it on, say “gin pet”(eat spicy), if you only want a little say “pet nit-noy”(spicy little bit), and if you want nothing to do with it say “mai gin pet” (no eat spicy). The next thing you’ll hear will be, “arroi mai?” Is it delicious? The answer to this is always, “arroi kah/krup,” or “arroi mak mak” if the food is very, very good. Most things on the menu won’t be recognizable. A surefire way to get a delicious meal is to ask the server or chef, “ari arroi ti sut?” This means, “what is the most delicious?” Trust me, you can’t go wrong.

Directions: If you’re in a situation where you need help with anything, say “choo-ay doo-ay kah/krup?” Conversely, if someone thinks you need help they may ask, “choo-ay doo-ay dai mai?” which means, “can I help?” To ask where the bathroom is, you say “hong-nam you-ti-nai kah/krup?” Hong-nam means bathroom, and you-ti-nai is asking where something is. You can put anything you’re looking for in the place of hong-nam.

Learning Thai: The best way to learn a language is through immersion. While you’re in Thailand, take in as much as possible by asking the locals around you how to say things. “Ahni-arai” is the catch-all phrase for this. If you say it and point at something, people will be happy to tell you its name in Thai.

If you use your new language skills in Thailand, people will most likely ask you if you speak Thai. “Phou passa Thai?” Now you can respond, “phou passa Thai nit-noy,” because you speak a little of their language.

25 Gifts for Travelers

It’s that time of year again, shoppers wandering malls looking for the perfect gift for the traveler in their lives. I’ve seen some cool products in my travels this year, and my readers also gave me a few ideas of their favorite things. You’ll find items at a range of price levels, some practical and others for a laugh. And just maybe you’ll find something in these 25 gifts for travelers that you’ll want yourself.

Scratch off World Map – $29

For the person that has a “bucket list” this map will help keep track of travels in a fun piece of art. It’s like a lotto ticket without prizes!

Lifestraw – $35

Originally a backpacking tool for drinking from river water, this water bottle allows you to drink tap water wherever you go. Even in Europe, occasionally there are suspicious taps and creaky plumbing. I particularly like the idea of saving all the many plastic bottles I go through in Asia.

Travel Coffee Maker – $28

No offense to Starbucks, but its hard to find a good cup of coffee outside of Italy. This simple set up has a pour-over filter that goes directly into a thermal cup. Add your favorite Italian coffee like Illy, and you’ve got a stellar gift for the on-the-go coffee snob.

ME.FAN Silicone Collapsible Travel Cup – $15

I don’t know what it is but I never have a cup when I need one. So many hotels either forget or have super thin plastic cups. Reusable, collapsible, including a lid and a strap to connect it to your bag. You can store snacks in it too. So many uses!

Wine Wings Reusable Bubble Wrap– $19

I always bring wine and olive oil back from Europe, usually wrapped in a plastic bag and dirty clothes to avoid breakage. A better solution is bubble wrap. These bags are reusable and waterproof, just in case.

Audible subscription

I always used to travel with a stack of books but that makes little sense for ultralight packing. A Kindle is a good solution but audiobooks for a phone add no weight at all. Audible lets you listen to whatever you want and makes a nice gift subscription.

Dream of Italy Subscription

PBS host Kathy McCabe loves Italy (almost) as much as I do, and writes a magazine covering destinations and culture. A gift subscription can fuel travel dreams for the Italophile in your life.

Sony RX100 Camera – $300-1100

I was dreaming of this camera last Christmas but didn’t get it…so I bought it for myself in January. This is the Roll Royce of compact cameras, with a price tag to match. It does much more than I understand, but the auto settings are easy and the photos are impressive. The newest version, VI, is over $1000, but the older versions are less and take equally beautiful pictures.

Allbirds

These wool shoes are my favorite new pair for travel, beloved by my tour clients as well. They are light and have a comfortable footbed. Because they are made of wool, they are warm and soft, and can be worn without socks. They wash up nicely and shape to your foot.

Travel Power Strip – $15

I am cursed to always stay in hotels rooms with a single outlet that is located behind furniture in an awkward corner of the room. A power strip with a long cord solves it, and this compact one also has USB ports. Toss in a plug adapter for international travelers.

Collapsible Ultralight Trekking Poles – $60

If I could require my tour clients to bring one thing, it would be trekking poles. Particularly in places like Sicily with uneven streets and rustic archaeological parks, these have saved many travelers from falling. Those that bring these always rave about them. Carbon poles are lightweight and collapsible, fitting into any backpack.

Sockwell Compression Socks – $18

You’ve probably read my raves about the benefits of compression socks. This is a fab gift for any traveler. Most socks on the market are plain and boring, but Sockwell makes them in pretty patterns for a bit of travel style. They’re also higher quality last longer.

Trtl Travel Pillow – $30

I cant say I’ve used this neck support, but I see them all the time on the airplane and people seem to love them and happily snore away on long flights. Apparently it’s a scientifically proven design, although I find that claim suspicious. It’s basically a fuzzy, stiff wrap that you can adjust to make your head comfortable. What I like about this is that it is light enough and flat enough to not weigh your bag down after the flight.

Sleepy Ride – Airplane Footrest – $20

This is another item that would never work for me and my ridiculously long legs, but I saw someone use it on a recent flight. This sling attaches to the tray table and suspends legs like a footrest. Keeping legs elevated improves circulation and avoids cramped or twitchy legs, and this does the trick.

Eagle Creek Bra Stash – $11

Confession time: I don’t often wear a money belt…instead I tend to hide stuff in my bra all the time. Apparently other people must do it too, and Eagle Creek has improved on it. This little pouch is the size of a credit card and can strap onto your bra in a variety of ways. Genius! No more coins or credit card numbers imprinted into my flesh!

travel underwear

Ex Officio Travel Underwear – $18

Normally I suggest you bring your own, cheap undies from home, which you can toss if you have to. But I recently tried out a pair of these scandalously expensive travel undies and I can say that they are worth it. They wash up wonderfully and dry fast, but I also like the fit. The weird fabric is breathable and stretchy, surprisingly comfy. Can’t vouch for the men’s version, but I imagine they are also great.

Wayfarer Travel Wrap – $40

Planes are sooooo cold, and the blankets are just too thin. But bring a blanket from home just for the flight makes little sense. Someone figured out how to make a blanket multi useful, as a wrap, jacket or scarf! Not only do you stay cozy but look chic at the same time.

Hot Logic Travel Mini Oven – $30

This is a tip from a reader, a personal oven for your hotel room! This little insulated pouch has a hot plate inside that slowly heats things up over an hour or so. It weighs little and would be great for the shoestring traveler, especially solo travelers.

Lectrofan Micro White Noise Machine – $30

Another reader recommendation, a white noise machine to help you drift off to sleep even in construction zones. It’s tiny and light. Use it at home before your trip and on the road you’ll swear you were in your own bed.

Travel Projector – $200

Ok, this is probably something nobody really needs, but I have one and enjoy it immensely. This pocket projector attaches to a laptop or phone and can project large enough to cover your hotel room wall. I use mine to do slide presentations to my groups and, later, to watch movies in my room. It really is tiny and light, well worth the space for business travelers that like to unwind with a show.

Digital Photo Frame – $150

I always imagined that someday we’d live like the Jetsons, with cool hologram phones and teleportation. It’s a little disappointing that it hasn’t happened, but these electronic photo frames are a step in the right direction. Display a selection of your travel pics from your phone or computer. This particular brand responds to the Alexa, and also has a setting to turn on only when someone is in the room.

Squeezepod Toiletries – $10

If you’re shopping for an ultralight traveler, these little toiletries are as light as you can go. I had a good laugh over this version for men, which is clever enough to include bathroom deodorizer in the kit. Thank you, whoever you are that thought of this!

Norwex Microfiber Face Towels – $30

One of the most common complaints I get from travelers is the lack of wash cloths outside of the US in hotel rooms. And it’s true, most places don’t offer them. Bring your own with you, but make it microfiber so that it will dry quickly. These are also good for cleaning eyeglasses and electronics screens.

SILLY GIFTS

You didn’t really think I would write a boring list, did you? Got a white elephant party coming up? Or maybe you drew the name of your stiff lawyer cousin that travels often and laughs rarely? Here are some gag travel gifts that will get a laugh, but are actually useful too.

Brief Safe – $15

Hotel safes are the most common place that people lose things. They forget to retrieve their stuff when they leave the room. Here’s a safe that stays in your bag. A “dirty” pair of men’s undies which are actually a pocket for valuables that you keep in your luggage. Few thieves will bother to steal that. Eeew!

Belly Pack – $13

Here’s another alternative to a money belt, a belly belt. Fanny packs are coming back into style, unfortunately, but here’s one that will make everyone smile or grimace. You can choose hairy or smooth, or pick that six-pack you’ve always wanted. Either way, I doubt any thieves are going to touch THAT.

Note that there are affiliate links in this blog.

Tradition at a Slovenian Farm

I recently returned from one of my two ancestral homelands, Slovenia. My mother’s family comes from this small Eastern European country, so I have spent a bit of time experiencing the culture and traditions. It was such a pleasure to take guests there and surprise them with all the country has to offer.

A little background on my interest in Slovenia…I can tell you about my family traditions, but as it turns out, what I thought was Slovenian is actually Slovenian-American. I grew up in what seemed like a very ethnic way,  going to the Slovenian lodge on the weekends and dancing at concerts by my grandfather’s polka band. Ed Tomazin was called the “Polka King of Southern California” in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He played Slovenian polka, and his four children were part of the band, including my mom as singer. She has a beautiful voice.

I grew up immersed in a bi-cultural world, hearing the music and language of my ancestors and eating traditional food.

In retrospect, it is a funny thing being raised in a ethnic way. I knew my family was Slovenian, but that was a country that didn’t exist when I was a kid. I remember having a fierce debate with a high school teacher who told me I was Yugoslavian. I said no, I am SLOVENIAN. It would be another couple of years before Slovenia split from Yugoslavia but that didn’t matter. Slovenia was important and unique.

At my grandparent’s house, we usually ate pasta, Klobase sausages, streudel, and the famous walnut cake, Potica. That cake is pronounced “Pah-TEE-tsa” and is a typical treat. My grandma used to make it. I asked her to teach me and she tried, with instructions like “put some sugar in and a few eggs”. She had never measured a thing and it was almost impossible to follow her logic and technique. I guess I don’t have that grandma magic. I’ve been searching for a good recipe ever since.

When I first went to Slovenia in my college days, I assumed everyone there would be eating Potica and dancing the Polka. I was schooled pretty quickly by the locals, told that I was living in the past, that everything I knew about my family’s land was old and outdated. “Polka? Only old people listen to that!” My vision was blown and I needed to get to know the country for what it actually is, not the vision of a place that my great grandparents brought over on a boat.

My investigations into Slovenia have taught me about a culture trapped between east and west, an intersection of an Alpine country with an Italian soul, with traces of Austro-Hungarian domination. It’s a gorgeous and fascinating place.

These days, more people are appreciating what the older generations cherished. Cultural traditions like the Potica cake are making a comeback. Maybe not the Polka but I’m still hopeful.

I visited Slovenia with my son a few summers ago, as you may remember. I went to show him our ancestral home, but also to visit a longtime friend that fell in love with the country and moved there.

I’ve known Andrew Villone for 20 years, we used to hang out in that post-college phase, having dinner parties, going to see art movies…all of that stuff people with kids don’t do. Good times. These days, Andrew owns and operates his own tour company, Savour the Experience tours, which specializes in small group tours of Slovenia and Eastern Europe. He focuses on food, wine and local experiences that would be impossible to have on your own.

His Russian wife, Natasha, is a talented artist and his most lovely souvenir from his travels. 😉 They live with their two children in Istria, an Italian speaking seaside province that feels more Venetian than Slovenian.

I’ve been so impressed with how he and his family have acclimated, his kids now speak four languages!

Slovenia is a small country of barely 2 million people and about the size of West Virginia. Strangely enough, it has nearly 50 different dialects which puts a big importance on regionalism. That might explain why Slovenia doesn’t suffer the affects of nationalism that its neighbors in the Balkans more frequently deal with. So traditions here vary more from family to family and region to region.

On our visit during our Veneto to Slovenia tour, Andrew and I wanted to take our guests to a place they’d never find on their own, and to have an authentic experience of traditional life. We went to visit his friend Monica, who lives near Lake Bled at the base of the Julian Alps.

Monica invited us into her home like family. We toured her “black kitchen” which was built along with their house almost 800 years ago. The black is for the soot, never removed, that coats the walls. They use this kitchen for smoking meats and baking big, gorgeous loaves of bread. Here the meats are always smoked (not air dried like the prosciutto found near the coast) and they also produce schnapps and brandies instead of wines. The oven for this kitchen heats the rest of the house with big tile heating units.

In their “white kitchen” she cooks on more modern appliances, but always with traditional recipes and methods.

We were visiting just as she and her family had been out picking apples and pressing the juice. For lunch, she prepared a platter of cold cuts and offered us the fresh apple juice, along with their homemade schnapps and hard cider.

She had several types of schnapps, I opted for “Mother-in-Law” schnapps which had a decent kick to it!

For dessert, the tradition is to eat the most common item on a Slovenian menu, the beloved potica cake I mentioned earlier.

Potica can be filled with tarragon, dried plums or poppy seeds to name just a few. But it’s the classic walnut potica that is revered and has an almost mythical sentiment in my family.

Monika and I had a lively conversation about Potica and its many versions. In the entryway to the house, she keeps a rack of potica molds, used for generations. She pulled out a cookbook to show me how many variations you can try, but I asked for her recipe, the most traditional walnut filled one.

Dough
3 tablespoons lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon sugar

20 grams yeast (1/4 cup)

1/2 liter warm milk (2 1/4 cups)

100 grams raw butter (1 1/4 cups)

2-3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

some rum

grated lemon zest

vanilla sugar

750 grams sifted white flour (3 1/3 cups)

2 egg yolks
1. Mix three spoons of lukewarm milk with one teaspoon of sugar and yeast in pot.

2. Mix warm milk, raw butter, sugar, a tablespoon of salt and warmed flour in large bowl. Stir well. Add leavened yeast and 2 yolks. Use ladle to batter mixture thoroughly for 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Dust dough with flour, cover it with a bowl. Place somewhere warm to rise.

4. When dough rises, sprinkle board with flour, roll out dough to about 1cm thick (4th of an inch) and cut off corners to make a rectangle. Continue to the instructions for adding your selected filling.
Ingredients
Potica Dough (already made)

1 kg shelled walnuts (2.2 lbs)

2,5 dl scalded milk (1 cup)

150 grams raw butter (2/3 cup)

grated lemon zest

250 grams sour cream (1 cup)

2 vanilla sugar bags (10g each)

2 tablespoons sugar

2 egg yolks

stiff foam of 2 egg whites

1/2 dl rum (1.75 oz)
1. Grind walnuts well and save 2-3 handfuls for sprinking. Pour scalding milk on walnuts and let cool.

2. When cooled, stir in lemon zest, sugar and two vanilla sugar bags.

3. Spread filling on dough. Sprinkle 2-3 handfuls ground walnuts on top.

4. Roll into a compact roll and place into a greased round potica baking tin. Roll ends must converge well. If the roll is too long, cut to get the right size. Don’t throw away the cut-off sections; bake them in separate smaller rectangular baking tins.

5. Cover potica with tablecloth and put somewhere warm to rise.

6. Brush potica with beaten egg before baking. Bake at 180 C (350 F) for about 45 minutes. Then lower the temperature and another 25 minutes.

7. Turn potica upside down and let it cool. Top with powdered sugar and serve wedge slices.

Andrew and I always have a blast together, eating and laughing. We’d love for you to join the party next October, dates and details coming soon!

Aqua Alta in Venice: What it Is and Why it Happens

You may have seen videos and photos in the news of Venice underwater from time to time, with tourists lugging suitcases through rivers or frolicking in Piazza San Marco wearing rain boots. This flooding is unfortunately common and is simply called “high water” or aqua alta. 

Venice, as a city built on muddy islands in a shallow lagoon, has always been at risk of flooding. Floods were recorded way back near the founding of the city, over 1000 years ago. The city was built on water and understands how to deal with it. But these days, the flooding has increased exponentially and gotten much more severe. Why?

What is a Flood?

Let’s start with the definition of flooding. A flood could be considered when there is an unusually high tide, but the locals usually only call it flooding when water enters the lowest place in the city. Unfortunately, the lowest point of the city is also the most historic: the entryway to the ancient Basilica of San Marco. Even if there is a trace amount of water there, it is considered a flood.

The water does not rise in the lagoon and wash over the quay, as you may imagine. Instead, it seeps up between the stones of the streets and through the storm sewers. That means that any point in the city that is low will flood, regardless of how close to a canal it is.

I’ve seen these floods many times. I once saw a bit water burbling up slowly through the sewer covers in Piazza San Marco. By the time I’d crossed the piazza, it was completely covered in water. It’s a creepy, unstoppable force, like the blob.

When I began my career as a tour guide about 20 years ago, Venice flooded a few times per year. These days, my local guide friends tell me that it can flood up to 180 days per year. And more than just higher frequency, they are getting deeper.

What Causes Aqua Alta?

The high water in Venice is a result of a combination of factors. How many factors occur at the same time will determine the severity of the event.

Tide

The natural tide of the Adriatic Sea means that the water in the lagoon has a high and low tide twice per day, as it always has. Just like any tidal area anywhere in the world, those tides fluctuate based on the movement of the sun and moon, and can be predicted with some accuracy months in advance.

This tidal movement has always been a good thing for the city. Sewer lines were never really necessary in the past, people threw everything into the canals, as the change of tide would flush out the water of the lagoon and bring in fresh seawater.

Things have changed in the lagoon, though. In the early 20th century, chemical plants and factories were built along the edge of the lagoon on the mainland. Deep canals were dug into the lagoon to accommodate transport ships. And a deep canal was dredged just in front of the island along the Giudecca which now accommodates cruise ships.

These deep canals have had a disastrous effect on the health of the lagoon. The volume of water entering and leaving twice a day has drastically increased, eroding the pilings on which the city stands. The sheer volume of sea water entering the lagoon now has led to more floods.

Wind

Venice sits at the top of the thigh of Italy’s leg, at the end of the Adriatic. Typically, water should be flowing southwards, as the Alps empty into the sea. There are two winds that can change that. The Scirocco is a strong wind coming from the south, which pushes water up the Adriatic and into the lagoon. The Bora is another strong wind, which can flow towards Venice as well. If either of these winds is blowing, the water will be higher than normal.

Weather

Contrary to what would seem likely, flooding in Venice has nothing to do with rainfall. Rain can make things wetter, but it is a larger force that makes the rain correlate with flooding. It’s the pressure. Low pressure weather systems usually bring rain. Low atmospheric pressure allows the sea to rise higher than normal, so aqua alta often occurs in rainy weather, but does’t always.

A Sinking City

People often ask me why Venice is sinking, and assume that is why the city floods. It is true, Venice is sinking, but so is your house. Settling is a natural consequence of any building. When you build on muddy islands in the middle of water, it would make sense that there would be settling over 1000 years. There has been, but not as much as you would think.

Over the past 500 years, the settling has been only a few centimeters overall. Some scientists have used the detailed paintings of Canaletto from the 1700’s to make comparisons. (As an aside, the Queen of England has the largest collection of these famous views of Venice.)

For centuries, the people of Venice have raised up their city as it has settled. The main square, Piazza San Marco, used to have a brick pavement. As flooding increased, new paving stones were layered over the top, raising the level of the piazza. Keep your eyes open as you walk around the city, you’ll see plenty of buildings with steps buried by a higher sidewalk. I saw the sidewalk raised near Zattere only a few years ago. And so it goes in the city in the water.

The typical settling of the city has been consistent for generations, but has become more rapid in recent decades. It makes some sense. The city is built on wooden pilings, trapped under water and slowly petrifying. The introduction of propeller boats in the canals is very recent, and the swirling of the water around the pilings has been eating away and the centuries-old supports. And much worse, the enormous cruise ships sloshing water around the city have cause irreparable damage to the underpinnings of the city.

Rising Waters

The last and most concerning factor is rising sea levels due to global climate change. You can debate me all you like about the reality of climate change, but debates don’t help the people of Venice. They live with it. They see it. The water IS higher than it has ever been. Even a tiny increase in global sea levels can be serious for those who live on the water. And as the sea levels continue to rise, the future of Venice becomes murky.

A Dangerous Combination

The highest aqua alta occurs when all of these factors coincide. Wind, natural lunar high tide, and low pressure all together will raise the water to dangerous levels. When that happens, the residents get an alarm several hours in advance, although most track these things days and weeks ahead. There’s even an app for tracking the tides.

A tide that is more than 140 cm above sea level will cause a serious flood of the majority of the city. 150 cm, which occurred this past week (Oct 2018) flooded 75% of the city. While this sounds apocalyptic, the people of Venice are remarkable in their resilience. Teams of shopkeepers helped each other in the days ahead to raise everything off the floor. Although many shops, museums and restaurants closed, some stayed open and served customers in their high rubber boots.

Raised planks are put on the main arterials, and maps are available to show you the routes that typically stay dry. The people cope, even when things are really bad.

The aftermath of a severe high water can take days to recover from. Anything that has touched the water needs to be cleaned. The water is not just salty sea water, but it is water that has mixed with sewers and dirty streets. I cringe when there’s a high water and I see tourists swimming or playing in it. EEEEWWW. The last time I was caught in a high water I threw my shoes away.

No Solution

I wish I had a nice conclusion to this piece. I wish I could tell you that a savior is on the way. But there isn’t. The MOSE project, a series of gates that should block seawater from entering the lagoon, has been a terrible disaster. After decades of work and billions of Euros, it still doesn’t work and probably never will. The cruise industry seems to have a death lock on the government, and more ships appear every year, undermining the delicate balance of the lagoon. And the water rises.

The good news is the resilience of the Venetian people who still choose to make their lives on the island. They dutifully prepare for the floods and scrub everything clean once the water is gone. They don’t panic and stoically deal with everything that comes their way. They keep the island functioning as a city, not just a museum. They have my respect, fighting the good fight. So, if you visit the city, be kind to the locals. Thank them for their efforts to keep the city alive. It’s not easy, but their hard work makes it happen so we all have this world treasure to appreciate.

What Happens if I Miss My Connecting Plane?

Sometimes things don’t go the way you hope when you travel. Forgotten items, long lines, you name it. But the one thing we all fear as travelers: what happens if I miss my connecting plane? Will I end up like Tom Hanks in that movie where he lives in an airport forever? It happened to me today. So let’s talk about it.

A Minor Inconvenience

I did something dumb. I booked a ticket to Venice, connecting through Amsterdam. It had a 50 minute connection and I am on a tight schedule, needed to be at my destination with time to spare. I have flown through Amsterdam six, count ’em, six times THIS YEAR, and all with short connections in the hour range and never a problem. I figured this one would be fine.

My Seattle flight left late, but they promised us they would make up for the time in the air, which they usually do. Not this time. Plus, we got held up over Amsterdam due to fog. By the time we landed and the doors opened, my next flight was 25 minutes from departure, and my heart was pounding.

I politely pushed past other travelers, letting people know my dilemma. Most people are super kind when you let them know the hurry you’re in. I dashed across the airport, and again vocalizing my rush, was allowed to go quickly through passport control. Running endlessly with all of my stuff, I finally got to the gate and the plane was still there…but the door was closed and no matter how much sweetness or cajoling I tried, they were not opening it for me. GRRRRRRRR.

My heart pounding from the run, I asked the gate agent what to do next. She shrugged. “Guess you’ll have to take the next one. But you should probably also breathe first.” Uuuhhh. And?

At this point, I had some options. I could call Delta and ask them to rearrange things, or I could go find a KLM (the partner airline) desk to help me, or I could try the automated kiosks in the hallways. I was tempted to call Delta, as they issued the ticket, but I asked a few airport staff members what they suggested and they told me to go to the Transfer Desk. AH! So THAT’S what that desk is for!

The Transfer Desk had a small line, and when it was my turn, the agent said flatly, “Oh, you’ve already been rebooked.” Huh. Would have been nice to get a message about that. She eventually found my flight and printed my boarding pass. The big bonus in talking to someone in person–she gave me a food voucher for €10. That’s a nice perk I didn’t expect.

This was a small inconvenience. I’ll get where I need to go, a bit late but I’ll survive. It’s just an example of how it works when you miss a flight. They will fix it. You’ll be ok and get where you’re going. Eventually.

It Could Be Worse

I have a slightly less happy story to share, though. A few years back, I was flying home after a long season, Rome to Seattle on British Airways. I was tired and my kids were dying to see me. The Rome flight sat on the tarmac forever, and left really late.

Once in London, the plane to Seattle was still there when we landed. Whew! There were at least 20 people from my flight going to Seattle, but……they wouldn’t hold it. It took off, apparently less than half full from the looks of the mob of angry Seattleites milling around Heathrow.

I dutifully went to the transfer desk and found a line of more than 2000 people, all furious about missing connections. I called the travel agent I bought the ticket from and she tried to rebook it, but told me I still needed to wait in the line and confirm my new booking with an agent. With my dying cell phone, I called home to share the sad news I wasn’t coming home just yet.

I waited in that line for more than 8 hours. People took turns going to the toilet and bumming snacks off of each other. At 10pm, the British Airways desk was closing for the night. Over that long wait, I had bonded with my fellow travelers and we were all fit to be tied. Sending us away after waiting all that time??

Someone (and I wish it had been me) came up with a great idea. What about calling American Airlines? They are a partner, maybe they could help. And indeed, this magical person in line called up American, rebooked their ticket in a flash and had just enough battery power left for me to do the same. Had we thought of it earlier, we could have flown that day.

The British ticket line descended into chaos. I knew that they owed me a hotel room and food, so I looked around for the person handing out vouchers. I snapped up mine and sprinted to the bus, hoping to get a room before the mob figured the system out. And that was the sad part, British didn’t announce the vouchers, didn’t show people how to use them. People wandered aimlessly around the transit desk. I wondered about the people from far away places that didn’t speak English.

The hotel they put me in was plush, a Hilton or something, and I had a nice meal at their expensive restaurant. But I couldn’t enjoy it. I missed my babies and home, and I was so pissed that British didn’t seem to care, or attempt to help the thousands of stranded passengers. I made it home on American the next day, skip-hopping across the US on any available flight towards Seattle. What a nightmare. But I made it. Eventually.

Lessons Learned

Everything is a lesson in travel. I took a gamble booking such a tight connection and it didn’t pan out. I stayed calm and figured out the best place to start fixing the problem.

The lessons:

1. Book longer connections, minimum 1 hour.

2. Always be prepared for complications.

3. Keep your phone charged and have a back-up battery.

4. Know who issued your ticket–it may be on KLM but could be a Delta ticket, for example.

5. Be verbal, tell people what you need. The Delta and KLM people were very accommodating and got the issue fixed. Airports are full of people who want to help.

6. Know what you’re owed. Short delays should net you a food voucher. The airline should provide hotel and food if you miss a flight and can’t connect until the next day. Be insistent about this and ask for it if they don’t volunteer it.

Above all, just keep this in mind. In all of my years as a tour guide, every single person that has ever traveled with me has made it to Europe and back home. Eventually. That’s a lot of people! If they can do it, so can you, even if you’re delayed.

The most important lesson of this story? Keep Calm, Carry On (and don’t fly British).

Compression Socks for Travel and Why You Should Use Them

What are Compression Socks and Why do you Need Them?

Compression socks are tight fitting, spandex-stretchy knee-high socks. You probably associate them with nurses or grocery store clerks. And, as usual, those nurses know what they are doing. Compression socks for travel are a leg’s best friend.

It seems a little counterintuitive, but super tight socks actually help the circulation in your legs. The compression helps boost your blood back to your heart. For people on long plane rides, it helps to keep your blood from pooling in your feet, and some studies show that it can aid in relieving jet lag.

These socks could even save your life, or so I’ve been told. Blood clots can form in your legs while on a long flight and travel to your brain. Scary! Compression socks prevent clots.

The benefits continue off of the plane. Many people walk far more when traveling, and stand for long periods of time in museums or museum bathroom lines. The compression socks will help here by aiding circulation, keeping you energetic all day. Many athletes are wearing these kind of socks because they aid in recovery from exercise. So many uses!

As a side note, women over 45-ish tend to get itchy rashes on their legs while traveling. I see it all the time. These magical socks will keep that from happening. What’s next? Can they walk the dog?

Which Compression Socks are Best for Travel?

Athletes need compression socks and stockings, and even wear them on their arms. I don’t know how physical and aggressive you are in your tourism, but I think the knee-high socks work just fine for my needs. Elbow pads in the Sistine Chapel might be nice, though.

I’ve tried a number of brands to find what works for me. Actually, I asked for compression socks for Christmas and absolutely everyone bought some for me, so I have a few pairs. Let me warn you, these can get expensive. Here are some suggestions of socks to consider:

Copperfit Compression Socks- $11

You’ve seen the commercials, I know you have. My kids bought these for me because they have the “magic of copper”, whatever that means. The copper part of it all seems like a bunch of hooey, but I do like these socks. They are well made and have nice contours built into the heel and calf, which means they evenly squeeze my leg, like a pleasant hug. They are my favorite, or maybe that’s the copper poisoning talking.

Physix Gear Compression Socks- $20

Coming in at twice the price, these lack the magic of copper but seem more durable. I’d liken these to professional level socks, if that’s a thing. If you’ve decided you like compression socks, up your game with these ones.

Sockwell Circulator Compression Socks- $25

These are the Rolls-Royce of compression socks. They claim to have some juju in their design that makes the blood circulate even better. What sets them apart, for me, is the material and colors. Instead of the normal blend of poly fibers, these come in a luxurious Merino wool and bamboo blend, mixing soft coziness with durability. They are also adorable. The patterns are all super cute. I want one of each. This would be the best pick for women that like to wear funky socks with skirts, or for people like me with feet that are freezing, even in a desert.

Compression Socks for the Skeptical – $7

Are you suspicious that this is some kind of snake oil or black magic? $20 is a crazy amount to pay for socks, and these can get much higher than even that. Try these cheapies I found on Amazon. They aren’t anything special, but will give you the idea if wearing tight socks is the thing for you.

Sarah’s Opinion of Compression Socks

I am a skeptic. This seems like some kind of hype to me. But after receiving a bunch of these for Christmas, I can report that they seem to work. I have long legs, and I get lightheaded on planes if I don’t move occasionally. My legs also twitch after a while and I need to stretch them. I don’t have that problem with compression socks. My legs feel happy and cozy in their sausage casings. I didn’t suffer from much jet-lag on arrival as well. This could absolutely be a placebo effect, but I’ll take it. Anything that makes long-haul flights more cozy and bearable is worth it.

As for wearing them in museums and on long walks, I’ll have to report back. It’s been too warm for socks at my destinations so far this year. I’ll take them on my next trip.

My Facebook page has more tips and travel ideas, come along and follow the adventure!

Sicily — Why I Went, and Why You Should Too

I’ve just wrapped up a long season of guiding tours in Sicily. If you don’t know much about Sicily, you’re not alone. Even if it’s the largest province in Italy, it is a place that seasoned travelers to Italy overlook. But that would be a mistake, this island is richer and more historic than Rome itself.

In my many years of working in Italy, I had also overlooked this magical island. I had heard all of the scary urban travel legends, mafia tales and, more than anything, it was just not an easy place to go. A train to get down here takes a full day. Why bother when there’s so much to see on the mainland?

Why did I Go to Sicily to Begin With

Some years ago, I was planning on spending a week in Greece, but changed my mind as the crisis there had just started and things seemed a little uncertain for a girl traveling alone. A colleague persuaded me to visit his region, saying that I would love it. I was skeptical, but decided to go. It was cheap and I had a friend to show me around. That was a fateful decision because I came to Sicily instead of Greece and fell in love.

What’s so special about this island? The list is too long, but a start would be the diversity. This is not Italy, my friends. It’s something very different. In the past 3000 years, there have been 12 different cultures that have come, conquered, then left their mark on the island. Unravelling that rich history and making sense of it is my main task, trying to convey it simply to people can be a challenge. So here’s a basic idea of the historical picture…

A Complicated History in a Nutshell

About 2000 BC we find the Sicens, an ancient native people. The Sicels (a different tribe) arrive here in 1200 BC. About 100 years later, the Elymians come, who are possibly refugees from the fall of Troy.

In 735 BC, about the time of the founding of the city of Rome, the Greeks arrive and settle in the east at Naxos, near Mt Etna. The Greeks will settle large parts of the east, making Sicily Magna Grecia, greater Greece, a place that becomes as important as Athens itself.

Phoenicians arrive soon after and settle in the east, which sets up a rivalry. The Phoenicians also settle in North Africa and become know as the Carthaginians. They start to fight with Rome. Rome dominates the island after the Punic wars, and after 200 BC the island is their colony.

Fast forward to the fall of Rome around 400 AD, the barbarians take control of Sicily in theory but not really in practice. The next masters are the Byzantines from the east who rule for roughly 300 years.

The Arabs come in the 800s, and bring sugar, irrigation and agriculture, turning the island into a paradise. They are replaced by the Normans soon after the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Yes, those Normans, the ones from France! Normans build castles and cathedrals and allow the establishment of a parliament, the oldest in the world.

Eventually through a complicated inheritance, the Normans are replaced by Germans, the most famous being Frederick II. The French come back in the form of the Angevins in the 1200s, but are soon tossed out and replaced by the Spanish. Whew! The Spanish left their mark on the island in the form of architecture and culture.

The Spanish will dominate the island for more or less 600 years. In the 1800s, the island is up for grabs again but is eventually joined into the new state of Italy in the 1860s. Got all of that?

But Wait, There’s More!

The main point is this: this island is about so much more than the Godfather and cannoli. It is one of the most diverse and fascinating places in Europe, and possibly the oldest in terms of human habitation.

And why have people fought over this island for 5000 years? The location, a convenient base in the Mediterranean is part of it. The fertility of the island is also part. Everything grows bigger and better here, and the lush landscape is something beautiful to behold.

But there is so much more than that to this island. And the food, oh the food. This cross-pollination of culture has made an amazingly original culinary tradition which turns any casual visitor into a foodie.

From souk-like fragrant markets to golden beaches, to elaborate Baroque architecture to a magical, steaming chain of active volcanoes, Sicily has it all.

The craziest part is that nobody else seems to know about it. You can have all the travel thrills of a top-notch destination with none of the crowds.

Sarah Murdoch in SicilyAfter my initial trip, I trained to lead the Sicily tour for Rick Steves and have spent months every year on the island. I find new and exciting things every time I come, and tourism is starting to develop in a region that badly needs an economic boost.

I am so pleased and honored that Rick Steves has entrusted this island to me as I co-author of the new Rick Steves Sicily book, along with my Sicilian friend and colleague, Alfio Di Mauro. We hope to bring the island to life for you, to invite you to dig deeper into a fascinating and beautiful place.

More to come! AMUNINI!

Travel Day Bags

I don’t know about you, but I have about a dozen day bags in my luggage collection. It is so hard to find the right one–something practical, comfortable, and maybe even a little bit stylish. Travel day bags are hard to pick.

I have my own ways and preferences, (you remember THIS article) so I thought it would be fun to reach out to another pro traveler, from a slightly different demographic, for additional ideas. Skyla Sorenson is a university student and has assisted me on tours. She’s grown up in the Rick Steves family, both of her parents have worked there for more than 25 years. She’s kind of like a little sister/apprentice, although I get mistaken for being her mom sometimes (ouch!). Skyla will be contributing to my blog on occasion.

Practical Travel Day Bags for Every Type of Traveler

What type of traveler are you? Do you sacrifice style for practicality? Are you ultra-organized or more of a sit-on-the-bag-to-close-it type of person? Whoever you are, there’s a bag out there for you. Out of all the bags I’ve travelled with over the past several years, these four are my favorites. Each one has been tested to the limit, either by backpacking through Europe, or exploring rural Thailand. To make the pictures more realistic I filled each bag with a guidebook, water bottle, and light jacket.

For the Stylish Traveler

Leather Tote

Price: $40

Pros

This is probably the most stylish bag I own. The leather is beautiful, and the solid color design combined with the minimalistic silhouette make it easy to match with any outfit. The exterior, while not waterproof, is durable and easy to clean off. In terms of practicality, its deep interior makes it more difficult for pickpockets to get into. The handles are the perfect height for carrying over your shoulder, so it’s easy to rest an arm over the top to create an extra level of security. There is a zippered pocket as well, for quick-grab things like chap-stick and sunglasses. It can also carry a ridiculous amount of stuff, which makes it great for cramming souvenirs in on the flight home.

Cons

The downsides to this are its lack of waterproofing and its weight. If you have back pain or shoulder pain, filling it to the brim and carrying it for extended periods of time may not be a good idea. It also only has one inner pocket, making it more difficult to stay organized.

Where to buy?

Italian leather stores sell this bag in every color under the sun so if your travels take you there, you’ll be sure to find one that matches your aesthetic.  I got this specific one in Venice, near San Marco, but I’ve seen them in every major city in Italy. If Italy isn’t on your list, these are closest products I’ve found:

ilishop PU Leather Handbag Designer Pure, Color Pures Large Capacity Shoulder Bag,

Minimalist Clean Cut Pebbled Faux Leather Tote Womens Shoulder Handbag 

Make sure to look at the other suggestions Amazon offers. This style bucket tote is available from many sellers.

For the Organized Traveler

RSE Veloce Shoulder Bag

Price: $70

Pros:

This bag is good for people that need to carry a lot of stuff. I found it great for assisting on RSE tours because there’s room for an iPad, folders, multiple bottles of wine, and a light jacket. Not only can it convert from a shoulder bag to a backpack, it can also expand from a 14-liter bag to a 16.5-liter bag with a quick slide of a zipper. It has multiple pockets to help keep you organized, making it easy to find exactly what you need. Another handy feature is that it can slide over the handle of a roller bag, making airport transfers very easy.

Cons:

This bag is square shaped, making it bulky to wear as a side-bag. I primarily used it as a backpack. The number of pockets was nice, but unnecessary, and I often found myself losing things in my own bag.

Where to buy?

https://store.ricksteves.com/shop/p/veloce-shoulder-bag

This bag also comes in a smaller size, which could be more practical for a shorter vacation.

For the Adventurer

Cotopaxi BATAC Del Dia

Price: $50

Pros

This bag is great for hiking, sightseeing, lounging on the beach—you name it. It’s incredibly portable, which makes it easy to stuff in a larger carry-on bag for flights, yet it packs in quite a bit. I used this bag when I lived in Thailand, so its survived everything from jungle treks to chicken attacks (don’t ask). The bag has a couple large compartments, a notebook pocket, and a small zippered top pocket. It also has a chest strap, which makes it more secure and helps the wearer bear larger loads. For pick-pocket prevention, it’s easy to turn around and wear kangaroo style. The extra loops on the exterior are great for clipping wet clothes or hats to.

Cons

My main complaint would be that it’s a very long bag. For people with smaller frames, it might feel a little droopy. The deep pockets do give it quite a bit of extra room for carrying jackets if you don’t mind the stuff-sack feel. This style of bag will most likely brand you as a tourist, but its colors make it a more fun alternative to the drab, utilitarian travel backpack (sorry Rick Steve’s). It’s also a little pricey for how it feels, but overall a good deal.

Where to buy?

Batac 16L Backpack – Del Día

(Be warned, you cannot choose your color scheme. These bags are made from leftover bits of their other bags, so every purchase is a surprise!)

For the All-of-the-Above Traveler

Healthy Back Bag

Price: $60

Pros

This is my number one pick for travel bags. It’s cute, durable, has lots of pockets, and can fit two bottles of wine. Nuff’ said. I used it for three months this summer, and as the name implies, had absolutely no back pain. Pretty amazing. It’s possible to wear it over one shoulder like a purse, across your back like a cross body-bag, or you can swing it to your front for easy access and security.

The model I used is also reversible, which is great if you want to switch up your style midway through your trip or hide a nasty marinara stain (spaghetti al pomodoro gets me every time). It has pockets with nifty pen holders, hooks for putting keys on, and a pouch for a small iPad or kindle. The shoulder strap can also unhook, so you can loop it around a chair leg while you’re eating out, or through the luggage rack on a train.

Cons

After three months of constant use, it shows signs of wear. The light blue paneling, although beautiful, isn’t super practical. However, the overall construction of the bag has held up wonderfully. Another downside is that you can’t fit an 8” by 11” piece of paper in it without folding the paper in half. This shouldn’t be a problem for most travelers, but it felt a little weird for me to be folding up passport lists and hotel reservations.

Where to buy?

AmeriBag Small Distressed Nylon Healthy Back Bag, Stone Washed 

This is the link to the more lightweight nylon version, it has almost all the same features except for the reversibility.

Budgeting for European Travel

It’s a great shift in culture these days, to see more people eschewing the Stuff and choosing to spend their money on travel. Travel changes your perspective on the world and everything in your life, making it the best investment in yourself possible. But how can anyone afford it? Isn’t European travel outrageous and impossible to afford? Absolutely not, and in fact, I find it to be cheaper than domestic travel in some places. Skip the trip to Hawaii and think big, you may save money in the end. Let’s get a sense of the costs by budgeting for European travel.

Where You Go Matters

Not all of Europe is built the same, cost-wise. In general, northern Europe is expensive and things get cheaper the further south you go. A hotel in Amsterdam may cost $300 per night, while and equally nice one in Palermo may cost $100. The other determining factor is if you stay in the countryside or the city. While pricing out a private tour recently, I was amazed to find that a country hotel was 50% cheaper than one in the city, only 5 miles away.

If you’re on a budget, southern European countryside will stretch your Euros well. If you have money to spend, go for the Scandinavian city experience. As for myself, I prefer a mix.

When You Go Matters

Hotel costs and airfare are your big ticket items. Assuming you’re not using loyalty programs or airline mileage programs, choose a cheap season to get the most out of your money. The best time for cheapskates? January. November is a close second. As days pass beyond January, prices increase, but the spring is still decently priced and has more options since many resort areas are closed in winter. The most expensive months are September and October everywhere, and August for any place with sand or a kiddie pool.

Play with date combinations and see what you come up with, you may even find deals as late as June.

Prince or Pauper or Both?

Some people need to have hotels with all the trimmings, others can sleep in a box under a bridge. My dirty backpacker days are long over, but they taught me that you can actually get by on almost nothing. I wouldn’t suggest saving money the way I did (stories too incriminating to tell) but if you scale back on little things you’ll be surprised how it adds up. I suggest a combo of cheap and moderate hotels, picnics and fine dining. Don’t scrimp on the admission fees to sights, that’s what you came for.

Airfare

Telling you how much to allot for airfare is like looking in a glass ball without being a psychic. I am always shocked when I see the cost of my airfare to and from work, it’s always different and for random reasons. Here is what I can guess, based on 20 years of commuting to Italy, and assuming you’re buying your ticket at least two months out. This is also west coast airfare, which is higher.

What Does it Cost–Seattle to Europe

January– $650

February-March– $800-900

April– $1100

May– $1300

June-August– $1500

September-October– $1300-2000

November– $700

December– $700-2000 depending on holidays

Add about 20% if you’re a month or less away, and another 20% if you buy less than two weeks before departure. That’s roughly what it costs. You can certainly get lucky and find cheaper fares. Besides checking your own home airport, try airports of neighboring cities. In Seattle, for example, tickets leaving from Vancouver, Canada can be up to 50% cheaper occasionally.

Overall, let’s pin your flight budget at $1000. You can manage that. Cook at home more and avoid Starbucks and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can put that money together.

Other Transportation

Your itinerary will determine if this is a big ticket item or not. Public transport is fairly affordable in every country. Sticking to a single country or region will keep your costs low, especially if you’re using buses or trains.  If you’re traveling in a group, renting a car can be very cost-effective. But even wacky itineraries, like, say, Stockholm, Rome, Lisbon, can totally work with budget airlines.

Flying can be cheaper than the train, but you’ll have to do some research on the budget carriers and their tricks. A €5 fare could end up costing $200 after bags, seat assignments and such.

While pricing is very dependent on what you plan to do, I’m going to spitball the transport cost to be $25 per person per day.

Hotels

Where you choose to sleep can burn money fast. Hotels have crazy pricing schemes these days, and finding a budget sleep is hard in high season in big cities. I strongly suggest booking your hotels far ahead of time if you’re on a budget. Look at the calendar and watch out for holidays. The 25th of April in Italy, for example, is already booking up eight months out! If you’re traveling around major holidays. try to stick to villages or countryside hotels for better prices.

What Does it Cost– Hotels

This is a range of prices for accommodations based on northern vs southern Europe. It is also a range based on time of year. The low end will be off-season in southern Europe. These are my estimates for a double room.

Business Class City Hotel– $200-500+

Family-run 3 Star Hotel– $100-300

B&B– $50-150

AirBnB– $50-200

Countryside Inn– $75-150

Hostel dorm bed– $10-40

Overall, I suggest budgeting $120 per night for a hotel for two. That gives you space to splash out or save money to suit your time of year and location.

Food

I used to be of the opinion that bread and tomatoes constituted a perfectly acceptable diet while traveling in Europe. I’d splash out for cheese if I was feeling frisky, and a 500 lira bottle of wine (blech!). What my backpacker self didn’t understand is that the food is a big part of the experience. Missing the local cuisine is like going to Disneyland and not riding the Matterhorn.

While you shouldn’t eat a fancy meal every day, plan at least one “event” dinner on your trip. Make cheapie picnics for lunch, that will keep you moving during prime sightseeing hours anyhow. Humble take-out dinners or homey local restaurants can fill the gaps.

What it Costs– Food for 2 people

Cheapie picnic–$5 for bread, few slices of cheese, piece of fruit, box of wine

Take-away meal– $10 for shareable pasta, meat, or Indian

Local pub or homey trattoria– $20-40

Mid-range restaurant– $40-100

Splashy Fine Dining Experience– $200+

Overall, I’d budget $25 per person per day for food. It can be way less than this, but I think you’d be missing out if you scrimp too much. This will need to be more if you’re focused on Northern Europe or anywhere in Switzerland. But even in expensive countries, a grocery store lunch won’t cost you more than it would at home. Bread, cheese, and tomatoes are always good.

Sightseeing

Spend your money here. Yes, I know there are some serious rip-offs these days (Westminster Abbey is over $20!), but hold your breath and pay the money. It’s what you came for. You can tighten your sightseeing budget by being smart about tickets. Most biggies, like the Uffizi or Eiffel Tower, have timed entries that you MUST buy way ahead if you want the base price. If you don’t you’ll end up with tickets from “agencies” (i.e. scalpers) which cost much more. Pin down those big sights ASAP.

Some cities like Paris offer combo ticket museum passes. I absolutely love these. They usually let you skip the line and give entry to things you’d probably not pay to see along with the biggies. Pay the money for these passes and go crazy. See everything. I am specifically thinking of the Paris Museum Pass, the London Pass, and (to a lesser degree) the Florence Pass. They may not be the best value, but they are worth it for kamikaze sightseers like me.

Don’t forget to budget in bigger experiences as well. Paragliding in the Alps, truffle hunting in Croatia, a pub crawl in Venice. Take a walking tour or two. These are well worth throwing more money at.

Overall, I’d budget $15 per day for sightseeing. This is assuming there will be days you don’t do much, and some where you’ll spend a bit.

Contingency

There will be other costs. Surprise airline fees. Taxis and umbrellas in a downpour. Flea markets with Stuff you MUST HAVE. Bandaids for your tired feet. New shoes to replace the ones giving you blisters. Who knows, you may even just want a little fun money to blow indiscriminately. That’s cool.

Give yourself what you need to have fun, but I’m going to pin it at $10 per day. Yes, that’s not much, but you don’t really need that plaster David, do you? Ok, fine, buy it, but negotiate and tell them you’ve been put on a budget and I’m the one to blame. It’s cool, I’ll take the heat for it.

Total Cost, Budgeting for European Travel

Let’s do the math, assuming you’ll be gone two weeks.

Airfare $1000

Transport $350

Hotel $840

Food $350

Sightseeing $210

Contingency $140

Grand Total: $2890 per person

So, for around $3000, you can have a comfortable adventure with all the trimmings. Single travelers may think they need to budget more, but that’s not necessarily so. I travel alone often and can hit these numbers, especially since I’m not going out for as many dinners or carousing with friends. It’s all about planning ahead to get the best prices.

Budget travelers could shave $500 or more off this price by going in the deep off-season and/or staying in hostels. And eating lots of bread, tomatoes, and cheese. Don’t forget the wine in a box.

Is this estimate totally right? Probably not. There are so many variables. But the larger point is that $3000, while not a small amount of money, can be doable if you’re a diligent saver. That’s saving up $250 per month for a year. So, no excuses. You can do this. Get out there, adventure is waiting, and doesn’t cost as much as you think.

Travel Anxiety: Yes, You’ll Be OK

I don’t know what is in the air these days, but it seems everyone is anxious about traveling. Worried they might forget something. Concerned that best laid plans won’t work out. Imagining dying in a fiery plane crash. I’ll tell you, there is a lot to worry about these days, but your trip isn’t one of them. Travel anxiety is real and I am here to talk you down.

Packing Anxiety

Let’s start with packing. I’m going to be straight with you, you’re going to forget something. Right when you get on the plane, it will flash like a lightning bolt along with realizing that you forgot to feed the cat. Be calm. There’s nothing you can do once you’re on the plane. You can buy virtually everything at your destination, I promise. And the cat will be fine, although it may pee on your favorite sweater.

To ease your worry, before you pack you can consult my expert packing list, or download my packing assistant app, Packupine. Most things you’ll need are listed in those places and you can even print a list and cross it off as you pack.

Even so, you may forget something. I forgot my wristwatch so many times that I don’t even own one anymore. I’ve adapted to using my phone. And that’s what you’ll do too, you will adapt no matter what you’ve forgotten. To ease your mind, here is a list of things you can easily buy at ANY destination, maybe excepting Antarctica:

  • Clothes and shoes in almost any size. Yes, they may not fit fabulously or be your style, but you CAN buy clothes anywhere.
  • Toiletries of all kinds. They may not be your brand, but you may find something new that you love, like spray deodorant or nice-smelling shampoo.
  • Electronics, even a cell phone. I smashed my iPhone in my rental car door this spring, and it is the nerve center of my working life. BIG freak out in rural Sicily. But I had a new one up and running two hours later.
  • Medications, yes, even medications. I have helped clients on numerous occasions with this. Your doctor can contact a pharmacy at your destination. Some places like Mexico and Cambodia will sell you just about anything without a prescription.
  • Luggage can be bought anywhere to replace broken suitcases or provide extra room for goodies.
  • Snacks for people with dietary restrictions are widely available these days, including bread or pasta without gluten.

All you really need is a passport and a credit card, although even those can be replaced. Oh, and clothes. Nudity isn’t socially acceptable in most places.

Travel Mishap Anxiety

Getting from your home to an exotic destination can be complex with lots of room for error. What if you miss your plane? What if you accidentally booked the wrong dates? What if you booked in or out of the wrong city? I have dealt with all of these things with my tour clients and let me ease your mind–it all works out in the end.

To ease your concerns about plane connections and problems, you may want to book with a travel agent rather than online. A good agent can solve problems for you while you do other things. It’s not cheap–some can charge up to $100 per ticket for their service. However, travel agents can offset that fee by finding cheaper tickets for you.

I’ve been impressed with Expedia’s customer service, which came as a surprise to me. I recently had to make a change to a ticket on short notice and the representative stayed on the phone with me for four hours to sort it out. It all worked out.

What about missing a connection? That’s the most common problem and it’s happened to me, and more often than I’d like. First thing, don’t panic. Second thing, find someone to help you. You’ll need to rebook your connection, and the airline may have already done it for you. Staff will often be looking for you and waiting to direct you, but if not, go to the help desk at the airport. If the line is long, call the airline while you’re waiting or go to the airline website to see the status and rebook. I promise it will work out, it always does. It might be messy, but you’ll get where you’re going. Nobody wants you to live at the airport!

Travel Sickness Anxiety

Getting sick happens, and when you’re way from home it sucks. Big time. I’ve seen just about everything. Broken limbs, detaching retinas, deep leg thromboses, mysterious rashes. My son got an intestinal infection in Thailand and it made for a miserable few days, even for a sunshiny person like him. What will happen if you get sick?

First thing, don’t panic (see a pattern here?). Call your health provider and tell them what’s going on. If you need to see a doctor, talk with your hotel or tour guide. They will likely know an English speaking doctor somewhere in the area. Get help sooner rather than later. If you’re not needing a hospital, go to the local pharmacy. Outside of the US, pharmacies act as mini doctor’s offices and can usually prescribe something for you. When Lu was sick in Cambodia, I went to a local pharmacy and described the problem with charades. After lots of awkward laughter, the pharmacist gave me something that cured him within 24 hours. I was wishing we’d gone much earlier.

I’ve seen the inside of more foreign hospitals than anyone should, but hey, that’s my job. And I’ll tell you, I haven’t lost anyone yet. It is going to be ok, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

Not Understanding Anxiety

People in other countries speak other languages, and we in the US are not so good at making foreign language a part of our education. You may be worried about not understanding anything in a foreign language and having your trip go down in flames because you’ll never find your hotel or locate a toilet. I speak several languages, but I totally understand that feeling. My first trip to Greece was a shock, I just didn’t expect to be so clueless, and not be able to read a thing or understand the language.

One of the skills I acquired early in my travel days was non-verbal communication. Gestures can go a long way. People want to understand you and will play along. Everyone everywhere understands the potty dance. I carry a small notebook and pen. If all else fails, I’ll draw what I want (a toilet is one I am good at).

The reality is, though, that the world is much smaller than in my early travel days. Most people speak a word or two of English almost everywhere. I even expect the penguins in Antarctica do. And if not, you’ve always got technology. Google Translate is a wondrous thing that can even, roughly, translate signs and menus. I’d bet it even knows penguin.

Fear of the Unknown Travel Anxiety

In the end, I’ll bet that the most common anxiety is one you can’t really put your finger on. Travel is forging out of your comfort zone and into the unknown. Anything can happen. That’s scary, but also exhilarating. Seeing new cultures, hearing new languages, not being in control of your surroundings. I understand, I really do. That is why we travel. This world is a bright and complex place, and diving into a very different culture feels like jumping off a cliff. My first visit to Thailand made me feel like I was on acid for the first few days. It was scary, but so colorful and smelly and delicious.

You can mitigate this fear but empowering yourself with knowledge. Invest in a good guidebook or hire a local guide. Read before you go, not just internet top ten lists, Pinterest beauty boards and blogs, but actual literature from the country you’re going to. It helps to understand the mentality of the locals and will ease your fears. People are people, even if we eat different things and have different habits. We all love and fear and struggle.

You’re Going to be FINE

Now, take a deep breath. You’re going to be ok, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Everything will work out…somehow. Put your travel anxiety on a shelf. Bring a cellphone with the number of your smartest friend on speed dial. You have a network beneath you that you don’t even realize: embassies, airlines, friends, hoteliers, tour guides. We are all here and can help when you need it. Just ask.

I’ve been traveling for several months every year for more than 20 years. I’m more or less ok (although the jury may be out on that one). I’ve never encountered a problem that couldn’t be solved. Just relax, think things through logically. One foot in front of the other and you’ll walk down a magical path that will open your mind. It’s worth it.

Small Pleasures in Travel

I’m just back home and enjoying a little down time. Sitting in my garden, watching the tomatoes grow is one of my favorite small pleasures. It’s not exciting, but seeing the progress every day is very satisfying.

It got me thinking about travel and “bucket lists” and getting a “Wow Moment” out of every day. While climbing the Eiffel Tower or seeing the Crown Jewels may feel like the charge you expect from travel, I’d propose that a glass of rosé on a park bench might be a delight. The small moments are even better, because that’s where you’ll find connection.

I have a few little things that please me when I travel. Take these as ideas and try them, or come up with your own. It’s the little things that make the trip worth taking.

Coffee in Really Local Bar

Italians drink coffee. Lots of coffee. When I tell you that most of my friends drink 4-6 espresso per day, I’m not joking. It’s what punctuates the day, taking 5 minutes to belly up to the bar and take a breather. I like to seek out places wherever I go that are slightly dive-y, a little ragtag and where English is definitely not spoken. I’ll order a macchiato, which always takes the locals by surprise, and just listen to the clatter of the local scene. If I speak a bit of the local language, I’ll try to talk to someone, and I’ll usually embarrass myself somehow. A coffee at a really local place should cost about $1, and it’s the best money spent to have a real moment with the people around you.

Staying In

A surprisingly delightful small pleasure is going absolutely nowhere. I travel a ton and never get to go home for the night. If I’m in Budapest, I feel really pressured to go out and have a cool meal and explore. But down time is important, and if the hotel room is nice-ish, I really enjoy staying in and watching TV. Sure, I probably won’t understand what’s being said, but it’s kind of fun to see what other people like to watch. More than anything, it’s a guilty pleasure to do nothing and actually take a vacation from your vacation.

Shop at the Supermarket

This is possibly my favorite simple pleasure in any country I go to. Exploring a supermarket tells you so much about the culture. My favorite part of a visit to Asunción, Paraguay was wandering the store and trying to decipher what was on the shelves. They love Dulce di Leche! Huh. Grocery stores in London sell mostly pre-made food. French groceries all have enormous cheese counters that smell delicious and disgusting at the same time. I’ll take $5 and buy something weird to try. Even if I hate it, that’s cool. It’s an adventure!

Take a Taxi

I’ve been programmed to be a good budget traveler and stick to public transit in big cities. Most places have efficient and cheap systems. But occasionally I just don’t want to. I’m tired. I’m hot. I’m feeling lazy. Or maybe I just need to feel pampered. Spending $10 on a cab or an Uber to my next destination is just luxurious. An extra bonus, you’ll often get some inside information. London cabbies are famous for “The Knowledge” and know the city inside out. I recently took a cab in Naples and had such a fun conversation with the driver, the ride was more fun than the destination!

Eat Something Typical

I have my eating patterns in the places I go. There are dishes I just simply must eat in each place. It’s fun to do a little research before going to a new place to find out what the specialties are and give them a go. For me, it is soothing and also great entertainment to find the perfect steak with Béarnaise in Paris. Mango and sticky rice in Thailand is one of the most decadent things I look forward to. Anywhere in Italy I look for mozzarella di bufala because you really can’t find the same thing in the US. And don’t get me started on Swiss Rösti. I’d be devastated to miss eating that greasy bomb of hashed browns and cheese when I’m in Switzerland. Every place I go, I have found a certain thing that brings me pleasure and I make that my habit. It’s like being a local.

Indulge a Hobby

What is your hobby? Collecting postcards? Woodworking? Mounting insects in shadow boxes? Taking pics of your pet in costumes? Whatever your thing is, there are people in every country that are into your thing. I like to knit and sew, and I go looking for shops or exhibitions on those things. I once ran into a knitting expo in London and almost died of happiness. My people! I just bought some fabric at the queen of department stores in London, Liberty, and had almost more fun talking to the salesman than I did choosing a fabric to take home. It’s good fun to find locals that share your passion.

Find an Underrated Museum

The major museums of the world keep getting more crowded every day. The crush makes it less enjoyable for me. The secret is, though, that every city you could possibly visit has underrated, empty museums that are interesting and worth your time. In London, Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of my favorites for its eclectic weirdness. And I’m an architect, so I kind of get him. In Cambodia, I took my group to a landmine museum after seeing Angkor Wat. It was a tiny, thoughtfully made exhibit that was deeply moving, and we were the only ones there. When I have taken my kids to Pompeii, we’ve left that for the end of the day, instead enjoying the Villa Poppea excavations that are little known but incredibly preserved. The smaller museums can be hit and miss, but the experience is always personal.

Running

I’m no fitness nut, and a few years back I’d have only run if you’d chased me with a knife. But now that I’m getting a bit older, running seems to be the only way to counteract the pasta and cannolo. Running in foreign cities is just wonderful. Even in places I know like my own hometown, like Rome, I’ll find new corners as I trot along. Running along with locals can be fun as well, and many cities host runs that anyone can sign up for.

Early Morning Photo Safari

I’m also no morning person. Seriously. But I do like to take pictures. There is no better time to photograph any city as early in the morning. The streets are empty, usually being cleaned. They light is perfect. The sleepy dew of the night rolls off every surface. It’s magical. If I can get my running shoes on, an early morning run and photo shoot is a solo traveler’s delight.

These are some of my simple pleasures. I find them more memorable than the big stuff, and sitting in my garden, listening to the zucchini grow, I enjoy thinking of those small moments. What are your favorite small pleasures when you travel?

What to Wear on a European Beach

 I’ve just spent a couple of months in Sicily, enjoying architecture, museums, food, exotic culture and, um, more food. It was a busy, full of great experiences, and the weather is warming up. Being a Mediterranean island, a trip to the beach was at the top of my to-do list.

But what do you wear to a European beach? There are plenty of ideas and theories out there. Many people may think that beaches in are generally topless or even clothing optional. This is not true. Beaches over here are somewhat similar to back at home, in terms of etiquette.

Swimsuits may seem a little more skimpy here, especially for men. Many men wear little Speedo bottoms rather than swim trunks. This is not something I suggest, let’s just say it’s a personal taste thing. For men, a typical pair of swim trunks will do just fine. European men seem to be adopting that type of suit lately I’ve noticed, so you won’t feel out of place.

I recommend choosing a neutral pair of swim shorts with pockets that look like regular shorts, in a solid color like black or navy. You’ll get more use out of them if they can pass as clothing. If you wear them often on your trip, a side bonus is that they wash and dry quickly.

Women wear almost exclusively bikinis. Yeah, you heard me, I mean ALL women. It’s actually pretty hard to find anything else.

I do wear a bikini to the beach. And I’ll be honest, I’m over 40 and have birthed two very large babies so I probably have no business wearing a bikini. But I do. To prove to you that you can do it, let me embarrass myself by adding a pic of me in my bikini. With a Bellini in hand and a sunny day to relax, I don’t really care if someone sees my flabby arms and jiggly belly.

I’m not saying you must choose a bikini over a one piece, but I’d like to give you some reasons why you should think about it.

First of all EVERYONE is wearing one- thin, fat, old, young, fit or flabby. Nobody cares. People are at the beach to enjoy the beach, not the fashion. I have to admit, it’s pretty liberating to get into the local spirit and realize that self-consciousness just isn’t a thing on the beach here. Women are there to have fun, get a tan and they simply don’t care what you think about what they have on. I once had a grandmother on a tour who purposely wore a bikini on our beach day to show her granddaughter how to be brave and confident. Rock star.

Second, a bikini is lightweight. It takes up half of the space and weight that a full swimsuit does. Because it’s light, it tends to be more comfortable for active movement like swimming or playing on the beach.

Third, especially for us busty ladies, a well built bikini is more supportive than a typical swimsuit if you buy them from lingere manufacturers. My favorite bra brand, Freya, makes a line of bikinis that are so comfortable that I often wear my top as a bra when my regular ones are dirty. And this is my sneaky fourth reason, a bikini can substitute for underwear in a pinch. Same for a speedo…but I’m never going to endorse that idea.

A lightweight cover-up can be a fun addition to your bag that won’t take up space or weight. My bikini cover-up looks just like a normal tunic top but slightly more sheer. I wear it with leggings when I’m not at the beach. I bought mine on the clearance rack at Target, but you can find a similar one here.

I don’t usually suggest flip-flops as your normal footwear in Europe, but they are perfect at the beach. Many European beaches are gravel or even sharp rocks, so footwear is essential. Many readers like the Vionic Tide sandal although I find them a little heavy. I prefer my Teva Mush Wedges, which can also stay on my feet in the water where the beach is rocky, like the Cinque Terre. For men, Olukai Hawaiian sandals get rave reviews and can also be worn in the water.

So what, you may wonder, is the deal with toplessness or nudity? Topless sunbathing happens. Sometimes. It’s not as common as I remember it being 15 years ago. But women will take off their tops part way to even out their tans. Even I do that. Nude beach going still exists, but usually at beaches that are designated or seperate from crowded ones, and often they are sort of secretive. I’m sure the Internet can fill you in on locations. My only suggestion there- make sure you’re not the first nude one on the beach. 😉