Wednesday, February 27, 2008

PreTrip Check List

Do you need a pretrip check list?

Here are my suggestions to get you started...

One month ahead

If you don’t have an email account that you can access from anywhere in the world, set one up. I use Yahoo. Word of caution: Use only letters and digits in your email address and password. You might have difficulty finding symbols on a foreign language keyboard. Set up your contacts in the address book so you don’t have to go searching for the @ sign. If you already have an email address that does use symbols, consider setting up a new one to use while traveling.

If you have a scanner, scan your important documents (passport, plane tickets, etc) and email them to yourself. If you need, you can access them through your email account.

Most international ATM machines use a 4 digit PIN. If you don’t have one, check with your bank.

Do you know your PIN by the letters? Learn the numbers. You might find ATM machines that have only digits on the keys.

Check with your bank that your card will work in the countries you are visiting. Give your bank the dates you’ll be away, and where, so you don’t find your request for withdrawal denied by your bank.

Call the banks for your credit cards and have them record the dates you’ll be out of the country. For emergencies, carry more than one credit card, in different pockets, of course.

If you don’t have a money pouch, check out Eagle Creek Undercover Hidden Pocket. I’ve tried over the neck and around the waist and this has been the most comfortable and easily accessible.

Check the condition of your luggage. Does it look like all the other black suitcases coming off the luggage belt? Distinguish it with anything from colored tape to a yarn bow on the handle. I use Magellan's colored luggage straps. Not only can I spot my bag as soon as it hits the luggage belt it even provides a sense of security against the zipper bursting open.

Put a copy of your itinerary inside your luggage tag. Hopefully, if your luggage gets lost, it will catch up to you. (Best way to avoid lost luggage? Don’t check any. Another post on this later.)

Call your cell phone provider about making or receiving calls from abroad. Learn the country codes of the countries you’ll be visiting (and your own country).

Have a pet? Make arrangements whether it’s a kennel or house sitting.

Confirm air, car and hotel reservations. If you’ll be driving your car, give it a check up.

Do you have the right clothes for your destination? If not, time to go shopping.

One week ahead

Call to put your newspaper on vacation stop.

Put your mail on hold. This can be done on the web site.

Give copies of your itineraries to trusted friends/neighbors. Be sure to leave emergency contact information.

Prepare your medications. Do you have enough for the trip plus extra for emergency?

Confirm, again, hotel, car rental and airline reservations.

Arrange your ride to the airport/train station/etc.

Put all of your documentation into one folder. I use a clear string tie folder that makes it easy to spot things. In the folder should be copies of all of your reservations, passports, maps, emergency telephone numbers, copies of your medicine and eyeglass prescriptions, copy of emergency phone numbers for contacts at home.

Pack up your camera and accessories, including film and/or memory cards. Put the camera manual in your bag and pack extra batteries or rechargeable batteries with a charger. Check the small print on your charger. If traveling internationally it might work fine and not need a converter. Be sure to bring outlet adapters (another item available through Magellan's). Don't forget your power cables.

Two days ahead

Put your house lights on timers.

If driving, have games, books and music to keep yourself and the kids happy plus emergency items (flashlight, spare tire) in case of problems. If flying, you can leave out the spare tire. :-)

Check the weather at your destination. Don’t depend on what you read about how things ‘usually’ are.

The old adage: Take ½ the clothes and twice the money.

Clean out your refrigerator.

Have a carry-on bag with essentials such as medications. I also include a change of underwear and a toothbrush with a travel-size tube of toothpaste. (See Getting ‘Safely’ Through Airport Security)

Get cash for your trip. If traveling domestically, travelers’ checks are OK too. If traveling internationally, don’t bother. In most countries they are a nuisance to change. Take your ATM card instead.

One day ahead

Confirm pet arrangements with house sitter or take pet to kennel.

Adjust your furnace or air conditioner, appropriately, up or down. Water plants. If you are in a climate where, if the power goes off, the house temp could drop below freezing, consider shutting off the water to the house.

If you can, print out your boarding passes.

Put snacks in your carry on. Don’t depend upon getting fed on the airplane.

Set your alarm and get a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Flowers in Fin Del Mundo

All around we see signs for Fin del Mundo or End of the World. We are in Ushuaia, Argentina. The growing season is very short here and yet we see flowers everywhere.

We are wandering around the ‘downtown’. Flowers are planted along parking areas and in small public gardens. They are beautiful. We relax and enjoy the sight.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah and Colorado

We visited Dinosaur National Monument in the spring. (Funny...I always thought is was Dinosaur National Park but it's not. ) Summertime temperatures can reach 100 degrees F and we definitely wanted to avoid that. However, even in the spring, the park is hot, sandy and dry. If you visit, be sure to be prepared with lots of water.

The Monument area spreads out over two states. We started at the quarry area in Utah. The quarry building, with the main fossil exhibits, is now closed to the public due to structural problems caused by a shifting foundation.

However, nearby, there is a small museum with fossils and you can hike about ½ mile from the visitors’ center to see fossils.

What they don’t tell you up front is that most of the ½ mile hike is practically straight up. The hike is VERY steep. We both had trekking poles with us which helped. And be sure to carry water with you. By the time we got back to the car, we knew we had our exercise for the day.

The other section of Dinosaur National Monument is in Colorado. This area has no fossils but does have a beautiful 31-mile scenic drive that takes you along the Green and Yampo Rivers. If you go and are like us, stopping at overlooks and driving slowly so that you can take pictures, plan to spend a couple of hours here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ushuaia and King Crab

Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, located on the island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. We were here for a few hours before boarding our ship that would take us into Antarctica.

Temperatures in the summer normally range from 17-19 degrees C. However, the day of our visit it was 27. Fortunately, I had checked out the weather before our departure from Buenos Aires and we were dressed appropriately. Others in our group paid more attention to what the ‘typical’ weather was supposed to be and were dressed for colder temperatures, even to the point of wearing long underwear and sweaters. Needless to say they were very uncomfortable.

(Hint: No matter what your tour guide tells you the weather was like ‘the last time’ they were someplace, go onto the internet and get up to date information. Our Ushuaia guide told us this weather was very unusual. However, she did point out a small pond, near the waterfront, which used to freeze every winter and where they would go ice-skating. Now, it no longer freezes.)

Ushuaia is very small and has one main street, San Martin, that is 16 blocks long. Needing some exercise, we decided to walk it and, of course, I needed to pop into the gift shops. Just off the main street we found a shop doing embroidery on hats and my husband got a very nice one. But in general, we were very disappointed with what we saw and I didn’t buy anything.

Having left Buenos Aires at 7 AM, we were now quite hungry and, based upon the suggestion of our Ushuaia tour guide, decided to have King Crab for lunch. It’s funny how we know of Alaskan King Crab but never considered that, essentially, the same crab would live in the same type of water off the southern coast of South America.

There are many restaurants along San Martin where you can find "centolla" (crab). The restaurant we stopped in offered it many ways but we wanted it ‘au natural’. So we ordered the cold crab dish. This was a pile of crab meat served with two sauces, one mayo based and the other mustard based. It was fantastic, tender and delicious. And, besides the taste, the next best part? The cost, at only US$15.00.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Buenos Aires: A Tale of Two Hotels

We had a cruise booked, starting in Buenos Aires and finishing in Santiago. We decided to fly into Buenos Aires early to be able to spend a few days visiting the city.

Through our Buenos Aires travel agency, WOW! Argentina, we were booked into the Argenta Tower Hotel and Suites, technically a 4 star hotel. This small hotel is on Juncal in the Retiro district. We had a studio suite for US$142 that included the 21% tax and buffet breakfast. Our room was large with a king-sized bed and small ‘kitchen’ area. The bathroom was big enough for the two of us to move in, with large soft towels. The air conditioning worked well and we were very comfortable, with loads of room to spread out.

In the lobby, there were several doormen who rotated shifts throughout the day. They always held the door for us, wished us a 'buenos dias' on the way out and welcomed us back, with 'buenos noches', on the way in. To get to the elevators, you needed to pass by the front desk, so we felt very secure.

With a small grocery next door and within walking distance of Plaza de San Martin and several small cafes (where we appeared to be the only tourists), we were happy with the location.

In contrast, for the night before our cruise, we were at the ‘cruise/tour included’ hotel. This was the Panamericano, located right near the obelisk, facing Avenida 9 de Julio. This hotel is part of the Crowne Plaza chain and is supposed to be a 5 star hotel. It is steps away from the extremely busy and crowded Avenida Corrientes. We felt less comfortable here than we did on the quiet side street where Argenta Tower was located. Even the McDonald's on the corner had a security guard at the door.

The hotel, on the contrary, had no apparent security. There were no doormen. The desk clerk was surly. Anyone could walk into the hotel and take an elevator up to the rooms. Our room was tiny, with the double bed just barely fitting into it. The bathroom was just big enough for one, let alone two. It was in desperate need of renovation with metal decorative pieces on the shower door frame falling off because of rust. With the A/C cranked to the coolest setting, the room was still uncomfortably warm.

Want to feel comfortable and welcome? Stay at the Argenta Towers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Road trip plans go awry

Did you know there is oil in Wyoming and Utah? We certainly didn’t.

Our road trip across the US, in the spring of 2007, took us through Wyoming on Rt 80 and then south, through Vernal, Utah. As part of our plan, we had no plans and, therefore, no reservations for accommodations.

A stop at the Cheyenne, Wyoming visitors’ center enlightened us to the fact that there were no motel rooms to be had between Rawlins and Rock Springs. Halliburton had opened a refinery in southwest Wyoming and the area was booked solid with oil workers. We didn’t anticipate that to be a problem as our next overnight stop was Vernal, Utah.

What we didn’t know, until we pulled into Vernal, was that oil workers had filled up that town, too. They were working in oil fields south of Vernal. Speaking with one of the motel owners, we learned there were no free motel rooms for, literally, miles around. We thought we just might have to break out the tent we had brought, for just such an emergency, and head over to the KOA campground.

Fortunately, with the help of the motel owner, we did find a room at a local B & B, The Jensen Inn. But this little adventure certainly changed the way we handled the rest of our trip. Now, if we had an idea where we wanted to spend the night, we called ahead for a reservation. And if there was no availability, we adjusted our agenda accordingly.

See also:
Halliburton press release
History of oil in Wyoming

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Getting ‘safely’ through airport security

Want to get through airport security with time to spare?

Want to be nice to your fellow travelers and not hold them up so they ALSO can make it through airport security with time to spare?

Then you’ve got to play by the rules.

Before you even get to the airport, if you have liquids/lotions (non-prescription) that you are taking with you, put them in your to-be-checked luggage. Don’t even try to go through security with them. They'll be taken from you.

Have bottles of water, juices, soda, etc to quench your thirst while waiting to board? Leave them home. You can’t take them through security. Buy them after you are cleared.

Have a pocket knife? Tools in your carry-on? Forget it. If you need them at your destination, you’ll have to check them.

If you have liquids/lotions that you want to take in your carry-on, get a one quart resealable bag (one per passenger) to put them in. Each bottle/container must be less than 100 ml/3 fl oz. (Size limit does not apply to prescription medications. Simply declare them at security.) I visit the travel-sized/sample sections of my grocery store, Target, Wal-Mart, etc to pick up items such as toothpaste, shampoo, sunscreen, shaving cream, etc to have enough with us for a day or two. I then visit a local supermarket and buy regular sized items for the remainder of the trip. (What fun visiting a supermarket in a foreign country a day or two after arrival! Quick introduction to how the locals live. I love it.)

Approach the first security person with your photo ID and boarding pass in hand. Photo ID must be government issued like a driver’s license or passport.

As you approach the conveyer belt at security, if you have a lot to take care of, step aside as you: get all the metal out of your pockets, take off your shoes, take out your laptop, take out the one quart bag with liquids, take off your jacket. Put all these items into one or more of the tubs and step back into line. Keep, in hand, your boarding pass and photo ID.

If there is room on the table, push your tubs/carry-on along. Don’t hog the table space.

WAIT until the person in front of you is cleared through the metal detector and you get waved through by security. Now push your items onto the moving conveyer belt so they come out the other side just about the same time you get cleared through the metal detector.

Gather your items and, as quickly as possible, move out of the way. If you need, take a chair to put your shoes back on. Put everything away and head for your flight. Bon Voyage!

(What I’ve written here applies to security in US airports. I’ve been through several international airports in the past year and it is impossible to state what will or will not be allowed through airport security in other countries. To make sure you are current on US airport security rules, just before you leave, check out the Transportation Security Administration traveler's site. )

Monday, February 18, 2008

Cafés in Buenos Aires

Looking for inexpensive places to eat in Buenos Aires? There are no shortage of cafés with great food and low prices. Most cafes will offer pizza and pasta, a result of the large Italian immigration to Buenos Aires in the early 20th century. These meals are typically very inexpensive. A large cheese pizza, with two sodas, was usually under 30 pesos ($10.00). And, what is nice about most of the cafés is that they are frequented by porteños (what the locals call themselves) and not other tourists.

The cafés around the tourist areas such as Retiro, El Centro and San Telmo usually have menus available in English. But you’ll have to ask for them. I have some knowledge of Spanish but, if available, we get one Spanish menu and one English menu. Comparing the translations was a great way to improve our knowledge of Spanish food terms.

There are two very old cafés that are worth a special visit. Café Tortoni bills itself as the oldest café in the entire city of Buenos Aires. It is on Avenida de Mayo and is within walking distance of most downtown hotels. If you are nearby (and just about everyone is at one time or another) it is worth stopping in to admire the wood paneling, the Tiffany lamps and the pictures on the walls. And, while there, of course, to have a cup of expresso or cappuccino.

If you don’t mind going out of your way for something special, then take a taxi, as we did, to Las Violetas. This is an old French-style café and competes with Café Tortoni for oldest café in the city. We went there for afternoon tea and had their Maria Cala. This was 33 peso ($11) and consisted

of juice, coffee and a HUGE tray of sandwiches and pastries. What a treat! The two of us could not finish it and we didn’t eat dinner that evening either.

Friday, February 15, 2008

30 degrees C is hot - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is sometimes called ‘the Paris of South America’. After our recent visit there I can see why. There are wide avenues and French influenced architecture. Shoppers can find stores selling the latest fashions. And there is no lack of upscale restaurants.

However, to equate Buenos Aires to Paris does Buenos Aires a disservice. The Argentine peso is a bargain against the US dollar, unlike the Euro, which makes shopping and dining out a bargain.

We had a week to spend in Buenos Aires and arranged a city tour for the day after our arrival. I highly recommend this as Buenos Aires is made up of many districts and the tour helped by giving us an overview.

Our visit was in January and in January it is HOT! Afternoon siestas were not an option as it was too hot and tiring to walk the city streets. On Sunday, we visited the San Telmo district where they have a weekly antique fair. By noon it was so hot, we spent a good part of our time at a sidewalk café, nursing cold beverages and people watching. Actually, not a bad thing to do.

However, as part of our city tour, I had learned there is a large craft fair, every weekend, in the Recoleta district. I would have loved to check it out. But by the time we finished in San Telmo, we were too wiped out from the heat to do anything other than return to our hotel for siesta.

And so the week went. And at the end of our visit to this wonderful city, I wished I had more time. I guess we’ll just have to go back again. And next time plan for November or March when it should be cooler.

(Stay tuned for additional Posts, as I write more details about our visit.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

A big WOW for WOW! Argentina

Want to know why I highly recommend this Buenos Aires travel agency? Keep reading.

My husband and I booked, in January 2007, a 19-day Antartica cruise for January 2008. As part of our plans, we decided to add 6 extra nights in Buenos Aires post cruise. I turned to WOW! Argentina for assistance with our arrangements, a Buenos Aires travel agency that I had read about in International Travel News.

Our contact was Gabriela ( who provided us with excellent service, patiently answering all of our questions and responding to my emails in a timely fashion. Reservations were made and confirmed and paid for. We excitedly awaited our trip.

Fast forward to January 8, 2008. We had flown to JFK from our hometown and were now standing at the LAN counter, trying to check in for our international flight. It didn’t take long for us to realize there was a problem with our reservations. We had confirmed seats but they hadn’t been paid for! What?! Well, according to LAN, they HAD been paid for but then a refund had been requested on them!

I called the cruise company whereupon I learned that they had purposely ‘created a problem’ with our reservations so that we would call them. The ship was overbooked, we were being bumped and our reservation was being cancelled! Words absolutely cannot describe our feelings at that moment. But that’s another story.

I am writing this now to praise Gabriela and WOW! Argentina. The cruise company rebooked us on the next (reverse) sailing so we needed to cancel our post cruise arrangements and rebook them for pre-cruise. In less than 3 business days, WOW! Argentina handled our change in plans professionally, promptly and with concern for our situation. I couldn’t be more pleased with the service we received from WOW! Argentina.