Monday, July 27, 2015

T Minus Five Days to Ireland

On July 2, one month before our scheduled departure, we received the detailed pre-tour information packet by email for Rick Steves' "Ireland in 14 Days." It included a cheerful informative letter and six useful attachments: (1) Tour Member Roster - 24 participants, including us: 8 couples, 4 singles, and a family of 4; (2) Hotel Directions to Buswells in Dublin, where we will meet fellow travelers for a "Welcome to Ireland" dinner and spend the first two nights; (3) Hotel List of all six hotels where we will stay during the 14-day tour, including addresses and contact information (I researched all six: one gets 4 stars, three get 4 1/2 stars, and two get 5 stars from Trip Advisor travelers); (4) Hotel List, sized to fit inside the silk money belt we received as part of the Rick Steves gift package a couple of months ago; (5) Travel Guard Insurance papers - this insurance included with every Rick Steves' tour package at no additional charge; and (6) a detailed itinerary for the tour.

On July 10, we received another upbeat email from Rick, this one with lots of useful personal tips to help us prepare for the trip, and a link to I downloaded the free app, "Rick Steves Audio Europe," pulled out my "Rick Steves' Ireland" guidebook, included with the money belt in the gift package mentioned earlier, and started daydreaming about what promises to be one of our greatest travel adventures ever.

Today, we are packed and ready for departure five days early. I can't remember being this excited, or this well-prepared, for any other trip. Thanks Rick!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Scheduling Misstep

Coopersmith's is the only travel company I have encountered that advertises tour dates longer than the actual tours. Road Scholar, America by Rail, and Rick Steves - to name a few - advertise beginning and ending dates based on first (welcome) and last (farewell) contact with the tour guide; but not Coopersmith's.

At first glance, "Summer in the Cotswolds" (August 15-24) looked like a perfect match to follow our Rick Steves' "Ireland" tour (August 2-15), but after signing up for both tours and receiving a copy of the "Cotswolds" itinerary, I realized Coopersmith's was providing absolutely nothing on Day One and Day Two - no transportation, hotel, meals, tours, or hospitality of any kind. Why advertise August 15 as the starting date if the tour begins August 17?

Unfortunately, it was too late to make a change. I had already paid the deposit, bought airline tickets, arranged for a house sitter, and made many other commitments. John and I decided we would make the best of it and self-tour London for two days until the "Cotswolds" tour actually begins. Rookie mistake for a seasoned traveler.

The date of first contact with the Coopersmith's group is Day Three, August 17, at one of two hotels selected by the tour operator. According to the final itinerary (received July 2), our guide will identify everyone in the group by colored ribbons we tie to our luggage. Ribbons are enclosed in the Coopersmith's folder. The exact times and locations for pickup are made available to everyone approximately six weeks before the tour begins in a folder sent through the U.S. Mail, Coopersmith's preferred method for group communication. I booked a different hotel for our two-night stay in London, months ago; we will take a cab to the meeting place.

Being met by a tour guide in a hotel lobby reminds me of tours booked through any hotel concierge. It's a strangely impersonal way to start a week-long adventure with a group of 20 people, without an opportunity to meet the guide and get to know fellow travelers at a "welcome" dinner or orientation meeting of some kind before climbing aboard a tour bus. But, I am learning that Coopersmith's is different, so I plan to follow instructions and keep an open mind.

The bus is scheduled to go directly from the second pickup location to Highclere Castle, which is the first stop on Coopersmith's Day Three itinerary. Apparently, we will be on deadline. So, fingers crossed that everyone is on time with ribbons tied in plain sight. Slow start, fast pace? We'll see.

Tip: If you are considering a Coopersmith's tour, you may want to ask for a copy of the client contract and get particulars about the tour itinerary, including meeting places, airport transportation, meals, tips, and so on, BEFORE you pay the $1,000.00 per person deposit. The $4,495.00 per person land price (double occupancy) for our "Cotswolds" tour is not all-inclusive. Make no assumptions about this tour based on past experiences with other tour operators. However, be prepared for Coopersmith's assumptions. For example, in this case:

(1) Coopersmith's assumes you will require two days (Day One and Day Two) to get to the tour group's initial meeting place. Plan to pay all your own expenses until Day Three. And remember, the group will meet for the first time on the morning of Day Three inside one of two hotels Coopersmith's chooses. If you stay at a different hotel, you will have to get yourself - and your baggage - to one of those two hotels; the tour bus will not pick you up at any other location. (I asked.)

(2) Coopersmith's assumes your flight home will depart Heathrow AFTER 1:30PM. If you have an earlier flight (ours at 12:30PM), plan to pay $250+ for a taxi ride from Corse Lawn to Heathrow on Day 10, because you will not be eligible for the advertised "free" transportation to the airport. (I asked.)

And so on . . .

The devil's in the details, and there are lots of them.

Learn from my mistakes.

Photo credit: "The Senior Traveler" by John Balmforth, 2015

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Daypack, Not A Purse

I planned to carry a red hobo bag as my "personal item" on the airplane and tuck an empty daypack for touring into my carry-on suitcase. But, my suitcase already weighed 22.0 pounds. So, I placed the Travel GO bag inside an empty daypack. The plan was for John to carry on his suitcase and the double-bagged GO pack; I would carry my suitcase and the red hobo bag. Perfect! But, my travel pillow took up too much room. The hobo bag just wouldn't work.

I spent hours shuffling and redistributing things from suitcase to GO bag to daypack, weighing each bag over and over, until I finally called an end to the four-day long "Packing Light" project. John had packed his suitcase in less than an hour! What took me so long?

In the daypack:
01 - Personal travel pillow filled with buckwheat hulls and lavender
02 - "Cold One" ice pack sized for lower back; unchilled, folded flat, used to firm and pad seat cushions in planes and buses, and for lower back support in bed
03 - Jewelry (moved from suitcase to wristlet)
04 - Mini flashlight (attached to wristlet)
Hair care:
05 - Comb
06 - Brush
07 - Hair pins
08 - Jaw clip for hair
09 - Scrunchie
10 - Small folding magnifying mirror
Make-up case:
11 - Lip gloss
12 - Lip balm
13 - Bronzer
14 - Brow kit
15 - Brow gel
16 - Mascara
17 - Lash brush
18 - Eyeliner pencil
19 - Sharpener
20 - Cold cream
21 - Prescription glasses (one pair in daypack, backup in suitcase)
22 - Reading glasses (extra pair)
23 - Sunglasses (one pair in suitcase; one pair in daypack)
24 - Sleep mask
25 - Soft ear plugs
26 - Folding umbrella
27 - Thermos bottle
28 - Travel converters
29 - Crocs flipbands (heavy-duty flip flops) for pool, beach, and shower

Deleted from my carry-on suitcase to reduce weight:
Folding ballet flats

Added to the suitcase, Rick Steves travel accessories for Ireland:
30 - Inflatible neck pillow for back/neck support
31 - Sleep sack
32 - Microfiber bath towel
33 - Microfiber washcloths (2)

To carry in neck pouch:
34 - Passport
35 - Emergency information

To carry in money belt;
36 - Cash
37 - ID
38 - Credit card

To carry in jacket pocket:
39 - Phone
40 - Ear buds (in jacket)
41 - Zip ties for daypack and suitcase zippers
42 - Sewing kit (includes tiny scissors for cutting zip ties)

To carry in hand:
43 - Ireland guidebook
44 - Street map of Dublin
45 - Street map of London

Final weight of each carry-on piece:
John's suitcase 22.2 pounds
My suitcase 22.2 pounds
GO pack 7.6 pounds
Daypack 9.0 pounds

Despite my best effort, each suitcase is .2 pounds overweight, and each daypack exceeds Aer Lingus's length guideline for a second carry-on item by 5" (the daypacks would be "legal" on a few other airlines), and my suitcase's spinner wheels cause it to exceed the maximum length guideline for a primary carry-on bag by 2" (though wheels are not included in measurements on some airlines). But, in spite of missing the mark for Aer Lingus carry-ons by 12" inches and 6.4 ounces total, I'm pleased with the overall result of this thoughtful attempt to pack small and light.

John and I are certainly traveling lighter than ever before. We should have no trouble at all managing our own bags this trip, come what may.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Carry-On Suitcase

Based on weather forecasts in Ireland for early August, I expect temperatures to be in the 50's at night and high 60's to low 70's in the daytime, with many lovely "soft days." Weather in the Cotswolds promises to be equally pleasant for touring. Not too hot, not too cold. I don't mind light rain, drizzle, mist, or any combination of these. "Soft days" can be refreshing!

I have a Delsey trolley bag that meets Aer Lingus carry-on requirements, 21.5" x 15.5" x 9.5" including handle and wheels and a hobo bag that comes very near the second carry-on piece size limit, 10" x 13" x 8".

The interior of the trolley bag has a few features that reduce the packing space inside, e.g., flaps that zip closed to create interior compartments.

I use a flexible cutting board from the kitchen as a folding board for my clothes. It is a tight fit inside this carry-on piece, which doesn't bode well for packing.

By necessity, my travel wardrobe packs light, and every piece of clothing can be hand-washed and hang-dried. After spending a full day editing and re-editing the list of what I will take on this 23-day trip, the result is:

5 dresses (4 short, 1 long; 2 casual, 3 dressy)
2 jackets (1 casual, 1 dressy)
1 scarf/shawl (for long dress)
1 jumpsuit (dressy) + 2 tops
1 pants (casual) + 2 tops
1 pants (dressy) + 3 tops
1 cover up
1 folding ballet flats
1 walking shoes
1 long raincoat w/detachable hood
1 wristlet
1 date bag
3 necklaces
3 earrings
1 bracelet
2 watches
5 each underwear, socks
2 stockings

Unfortunately, in a test pack, the trolley bag interior proves too small, so I choose an Samsonite spinner carry-on piece, which measures 21.5" x 15.5" x 9.5" NOT including spinner wheels. These wheels add approximately 2" to the length of the bag. In the worst case scenario, this piece will become checked baggage. But, I will take it to the gate and hope for the best.

The interior of the Samsonite spinner bag offers maximum packing space.

In another test pack, the suitcase and folded clothes, together, not including what I will wear on the plane, weigh 16.8 pounds on my home scale, well under the 22-pound carry-on limit, leaving room for a folding umbrella, underwear and a few other items tucked in alongside the folded clothes.

Tip: Pack the flexible cutting board under the folded clothes to smooth out the bottom of the suitcase.

Now, all that's left to decide is what to carry in my handbag. As my second carry-on piece (John will carry our GO bag), the red hobo bag will have a weight limit too. But, Rick Steves' IRELAND tour book will be the first thing in it!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Travel GO Bag

After the Oceania Insignia fire last year, when all passengers were evacuated home from St. Lucia in what we were wearing the day of the fire (luggage was packed for us - no choice - and arrived two weeks later), I spent a many hours thinking about what I would want in a Travel GO bag for future trips, in case of another such emergency. I had configured three GO bags at home in Florida: one as a member of my city's Community Emergency Response Team; one as a trained volunteer for the local police department; and, a the third during my Red Cross training. But, I had never thought of taking a GO bag on vacation. Now, I do.

My Travel GO bag includes all the things I needed - but didn't have and couldn't get - on past trips; for example, when I came down with a bad case of travel flu on a riverboat in France; when I twisted my back in Alaska and couldn't walk for several days; when I suffered minor injuries, including a broken wrist, because of a fall in Delos; and, when I caught the worst head cold of my life in California. Now, instead of hoping everything will go smoothly on future trips - because, in my case, it often doesn't - I prefer to be prepared, whether traveling by ship, plane, train, or car - in the U.S.A. or abroad.

Here is an updated list of my personal Travel GO Bag's contents as of July, 2015. It sounds like a lot to carry, but everything fits nicely into a small L.L. Bean day pack and is surprisingly light to carry.

My Travel GO bag
01 - Benedryl tablets for allergy
02 - Advil tablets for inflammation
03 - Extra Strength Tylenol tablets for headaches and pain
04 - Tears II Naturale single-use vials for eye irritation (liquid)
05 - Ayr saline nasal spray for sinus irritation (liquid)
06 - Mucinex tablets for travel flu or cold symptoms
07 - Pill spliter for the HUGE Mucinex tablets
08 - Swiss Kriss herbal laxative tablets for constipation
09 - Tums tablets for indigestion
10 - Pepto Bismol tablets for sour stomach and diarrhea
11 - Cough drops for sore throat
12 - Vitamins
13 - Alcohol wipes for scrapes and bug bites
14 - Purell wipes for sanitizing
15 - Latex-free bandaids for scrapes, blisters, etc.
16 - Dressing sponges and tape for wound care
17 - Disposable gloves for emergency protection against dirt, fluids, etc.
18 - Thermometer
19 - Neosporin for cuts and abrasions (cream)
20 - Campho-Phenique for bites (gel)
21 - Vick's vapor rub (rosemary scented) to aid breathing in case of cold or allergy (cream)
22 - Kleenex purse packs for cold or allergy
23 - Toilet paper (self-made purse packs) for use when none is provided
24 - Sunscreen (1 for face, 1 for body) (cream)
25 - Extra zip-lock baggies for damp clothing, used tissues, travel trash, etc.
26 - Lavender oil for repelling insects (liquid)
27 - Eucalyptus oil for disinfecting and freshening stale air (liquid)
28 - Pads for eucalyptus oil
29 - Procedure masks for protection against sneezing and coughing, and for sleeping where allegens are present
30 - Woolite packets for laundering washables in hotel sinks (liquid)
31 - Shout wipes for stain removal
32 - Sink stopper for hotel sinks and tubs
33 - Clothesline
34 - Sewing kit (includes tiny, TSA-compliant scissors)
35 - Go Girl Combo Pack "for female urination in unfit facilities"
36 - Emery boards
37 - Large nail clippers
38 - Q-tips
39 - Cotton balls
40 - Toothbrushes (standard folding for travel, disposible for on the road)
41 - Toothpaste (cream)
42 - Floss
43 - Dental pics
44 - Deodorant
45 - Bar soaps (1 for face, 1 for body)
46 - Shampoo (liquid)
47 - Cream rinse (liquid)
48 - Body lotion (liquid)
49 - Body wash (liquid)
50 - Shower cap
51 - Pomade (gel)
52 - Baby powder
53 - Vaseline for foot care (gel)
54 - Razor
55 - Shaving cream (gel)
56 - Quick-dry wash cloth

Tip: Sort items by use, e.g., "DENTAL," "LAUNDRY," "FIRST AID," into zip-lock bags (snack and quart sizes work for me). Label contents as needed. Place all zip-locks into a box until you are ready to pack your GO bag. Be sure you have everything on your list at hand, then remove the liquids, creams and gels from the zip-locks, and place them into a single, gallon-sized bag. Put the smaller zip-locks into your day pack first. Put the gallon-size bag in last, so it is easy to remove from your pack at the TSA checkpoint. After inspection, put all individual items back into their original zip-lock bags. This may seem like an unnecessary duplication of effort, but for me, it minimizes confusion and avoids the question, "Where is . . . ?"

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Packing Light for August in Ireland and England

With the 23-day trip to Ireland and England two weeks away, it's time to think about packing. Why so soon? For the first time, John and I will be restricted to one small suitcase each, no larger than 21.5" x 15.5" x 9.5", weighing 22 pounds or less (European carry-on size, as defined by Aer Lingus); and one small personal item each with a maximum size of 10" x 13" x 8" (a "small" second carry-on item allowed by Aer Lingus for Coach class passengers). I have often tried to pack light, but never this light for so long a trip. Rick Steves gives many excellent reasons why limiting size and number of bags works well on his tours, so I'm excited to face the challenge head on!