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February 26, 2009

The email machine is currently working and other news.

This is the brief two-minute window of time where I actually have access to my email and the server hasn't crashed. Miracle of miracles!

Nancy from Ohio writes: Do you get scared traveling by yourself? What about pickpockets and safety of traveling by yourself?

Hi Nancy!
Well, definitely the most important concern when you're a woman traveling alone is your personal safety. That's why I've picked all relatively safe destinations to visit by myself (Western Europe, places in the states) and I haven't ventured out into more adventurous locations ... yet!

Once you've picked a destination with reasonable expectations of personal safety, the key is to not freak out and get get paranoid but just take normal precautions. I figure I live in Los Angeles and work downtown and I would never walk around lost and tipsy here at night, or leave my handbag draped over the back of a chair or anywhere unattended, I wouldn't wear a backpack on the metro escalator or carry my valuables through skid row. So why would I do that abroad? (Also I think most places I've visited overseas are way safer in general than Los Angeles!) When I'm traveling, I carry a purse and look at maps and I'm a tourist but I take precautions just like I would in L.A. I keep my handbag zipped up tight, my passport stays in the room safe (or you can lock it in your luggage back at the hotel) and I stay aware of my surroundings.

It's a little bit of a leap of faith, no matter where you go. It also gets MUCH easier to believe this once you actually go on a trip. It's the fear and anxiety beforehand that get you! Once you're there you'll see it's not nearly as scary as you imagined.

madrid-holy-cow.jpg
Holy Cow! I'm traveling alone!
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Margaret J. wrote:

Hi Laurie! I've really enjoyed your last couple of posts
about Madrid. And phooey to the people who ask if/how you can afford to travel. First of all, it's none of their business and didn't their mamas teach them manners? Secondly, from what I've seen, 2009 is THE year to travel. There are LOTS of great deals out there, because even places like Vegas are having a hard time luring the tourists. So keep up the adventuring and thanks for sharing with us!

Dear Margaret, thanks for the note!
I agree-- this is the year to travel cheap! You know how some people go online obsessively for facebook or fantasy football or stalking? I am like that with travel websites. I have all my favorites bookmarked and I read travel news like it's going out of style and I watch airfares like some people watch ebay.

This year is full of crazy deals. This is the best time since Bird Flu to get a cheap ticket to a far-away destination. My favorite sites are CheapTickets.com, Kayak.com (check out their "buzz" feature to see flights in your price range to any region of the world) and for hotels I love LateRooms.com. I am the master of the cheap airfare ... my flight to Madrid was $558 roundtrip (including taxes and fees.) And my hotel was a great last minute deal from Orbitz.com. If you're flexible on your destination you can go just about anywhere on the cheap right now. By the way -- American just announced a big European fare sale, too. It's good for travel through May (usually cheap European fares dry up by the end of March.) You do have to purchase by March but that gives you plenty of time to plan a trip.

And the dollar is holding its own against the Euro for the first time in forever. I found all my meals and drinks to be really on par in Madrid with what I would pay here in Los Angeles, if not a little cheaper. And I always go to the grocery store wherever I am to stock up on water, wine, snacks and stuff so I can have a picnic now and then instead of full restaurant meals. Oh -- always look for a hotel that includes breakfast in the price. My hotel in Madrid had a GREAT buffet breakfast included in the room price. The buffet was stocked with juice, coffee, yogurt, fruit, cereal, breads and pastries and freshly cooked sausages, bacon, eggs and Spanish tortilla de patatas which was incredible. They served until 11 a.m. so for me it was breakfast and lunch.

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Marcy S. emailed to say: I admire your willingness to travel abroad alone. You've inspired me. I've never been afraid to do things alone. I eat in restaurants, go to festivals, even travel by myself, but for some reason, I never thought of traveling abroad by myself. So, after reading about your trips to France, Italy, and now Spain, I've decided to start saving up for a trip to England. I will then go to France next (since I have an undergrad degree in French, I should manage pretty well with the language).

Dear Marcy-- thank you! The main reason I write about traveling and post pictures is because I figure if a big sissy such as myself can up and travel alone to a foreign country, anyone on earth can do it. And I can't believe I wasted so much time thinking you had to travel with someone! What I didn't realize is that I am a great travel partner ... I laugh at my own jokes and appreciate dorky signs and don't mind when I hog the bathroom.

The best part about traveling alone is the total immersion in whatever you want to do. You can sleep as late as you want or wake as early as you want. You're never waiting on someone else, you can stare at a Goya painting for half an hour if you want, you can eat anytime and any place you choose. I've discovered that when left to my own devices I will spend five hours in a museum every single day. I never had the luxury of doing that before -- anyone I've ever traveled with has been ready to go after about an hour. Now I can spend as many hours in a museum as I want without worrying that I am ruining my partner's vacation.

I've also started taking more super-short trips because I don't mind the airplane rides and I think it combats the loneliness factor. After about five days in a place with a foreign language I start to get lonely. I spent a week last year in Paris and I think it was about two days too long. Four days seems to be the magic number for me, but your mileage may vary!

Oh, and when I am traveling alone no one makes fun of me for stopping to take pictures of little signs done up in cross-stitch:

madrid-cross-stitch.jpg

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Angie writes:

Ok, please elaborate (quickly, I am leaving for FLA in 1 week) on these packing cubes, I don't understand how packing into something for the sake of organizing helps cut down on your luggage. My DD8 and I are planning to travel for a week on 1 carry-on and our purses. I've got the mix/match going, but the cubes, I don't get?

Hi Angie!
The cubes help me because it's easy to see at a glance what will or won't fit -- the cubes are space limited. Second, the cubes keep everything organized. And finally, and most importantly, they keep your stuff enclosed so that when TSA is digging through your bag you don't have them touching your panties and socks and it all fits back together like luggage tetris.

Before I bought the cubes I used ziploc bags, but the cubes are re-useable and more durable. You don't NEED them -- I mean it is absolutely possible to pack without them -- but they seem to make my packing much easier. I also use a 17" carryon bag, which is smaller than average, so every inch of space needs to stay organized.

Have fun in Florida! Take sunscreen!

packing-cubes-on-bed.jpg
I use this set of three cubes by Rick Steves.

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Beth writes:

Hey Laurie, I was wondering what brand of luggage you use. My husband and I are planning a trip overseas next year, and would love any advice you have to offer, as we've never been. Thanks!

Hi Beth!
The only advice I have with luggage is to buy something lightweight and durable. Lightweight is key because the airlines are charging you an arm, a leg, and a torso for every bag over the weight limit. And durable goes without saying.

A few years back I bought some cheapo luggage at Ross and it lasted me exactly two plane trips. So I went to a regular department store with a sale coupon and bought my one little Samsonite carryon two years ago. It has been the most durable piece of luggage ever! I have hauled it through the airports of the world and it's still working like a charm. I think for something like luggage (which you plan to keep for a long time) it's not a bad idea to invest in good pieces. But right now sales are everywhere, so I would keep an eye on your Macy's ads and even online places like eBags, which often offers free shipping. Just remember -- lightweight! That's the key!

The little carryon I have is kind of similar to this one from Samsonite. Mine was an older model and much less expensive but it's the approximate same shape and size.

Have fun on your trip!

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Amanda writes:

OK, how does one work up the guts to travel alone? I spent a semester in Italy in college, but it was as part of a group, and since then I haven't even been brave enough to go out of state by myself - even though I enjoy traveling. I guess it doesn't help that I *did* meet one of those Italian pickpockets... Is it just one
of those things you have to just DO without thinking about it too much beforehand?

Well, I'm sorry you had a pickpocketing experience, and I can see how that could dampen your desire to travel alone. Or ... I guess you could consider yourself officially pre-disastered, since the statistical chance of you being targeted twice is very low. Right?

I think it comes down to desire and decision -- how much you want to travel abroad combined with the decision to just do it. And then you just do it. For folks with a lot of fear and anxiety, I would start someplace that you can speak the language (so if you speak only English, I would suggest the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or Canada.) Then set yourself a budget and start looking for a plane ticket. And buy it.

I don't recommend buying a ticket for a trip months and months and months away because that gives you way too much time to worry and get anxious. Buy a ticket for a trip just a month or two away. Then get a guidebook, read about some good areas of town to stay in and pick a hotel. Then just go. Go and have fun. You've already been pickpocketed once so it doesn't have to happen again. You can figure out where things went wrong and change it up (for example, if it was a backpack, consider a purse with a zipper and inside zippered pockets and hold it under your arm. If it was a pocket, don't keep anything in your pockets. That kind of thing.) I don't think one poor experience should deter you from seeing the world if you really want to see it. In fact, you might even consider yourself lucky because you got the one bad experience out of the way already and now you can travel without problems!

And of course, some people have no interest in traveling at all and there is 100% NOTHING wrong with that. I myself would not go on a cruise for a million bucks in cash ... I am just not a boat person. But I know people who love nothing more than a relaxing cruise. Each to their own!

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And finally...

Pamela T. asks:

Can you go for days without checking email or going online? How do you stay in touch with people when you're gone alone?

Sadly, I am one of the humans not yet retrofitted for technology and I can go for long stretches of time without even remembering the computer exists at all. But in an effort to not incur the exasperation of my coworkers, my family and my editor, I do try to pay attention and answer emails a few times a week. (Usually.) My email has been held together by gum and rubber bands for about two years and the server upgrade a few months ago wiped out all of my folders and filters and now it is back to being rubber bands, gum and now the occasional paper clip. One day I hope to be free of email altogether, but I fear I am the only one who feels this way.

I do stay in touch with my family and my house sitter while I'm gone. And I do it all with the world's cutest laptop. About a year and a half ago I bought the ASUS Eee PC, and it's not a real laptop (it has basically no hard drive and no DVD drive) but it's ultra-portable and it was REALLY CHEAP! I got this model for $299. They have newer versions out now with better storage, better memory and a better screen and they have a 10-Inch version, too. And Sony just released a gorgeous netbook of its own but it's spendier, at $899.

I use this little guy all the time when I'm traveling for staying in touch (I call my friends and family using Skype) and most hotels where I've stayed offer wifi either free or for a small fee per day. I bring along a little foldable headset with a microphone and when I call my dad from some far-flung country, it sounds like he's in the next room. And Skype calls cost just pennies (and they're free computer-to-computer.) This little laptop fits inside my handbag and weighs less than two pounds. And when I was in Madrid I used it to watch the entire first season of 30 Rock, thanks to my co-worker New Jersey who put all my episodes on a little flash drive for me.

asus-eeepc.jpg
(Knitting and watching shows in the hotel ... jet lag never had it so good.)

Actually that picture doesn't illustrate how TINY this thing is. Here's another shot while skyping with a pal, the little laptop is with my coffee mug for scale:

asus-eeepc-mug.jpg

I honestly could not believe you could purchase something like this for $299 -- and that it would WORK -- but it's a great little machine and it's been working like a charm for almost two years now. The keyboard is a bit cramped and takes some getting used to, but it's fine for traveling and it's super durable. It also has a built-in webcam and great speaker sound. I don't work for this computer company or anything, I just like sharing a cool product when I find one. The newer versions of the Asus eeePC are on sale at Target, too, I've seen both the black and the pearl white models on display.

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Ok, enough yammering on for one day. Time to go fill that coffee mug!

Posted by laurie at February 26, 2009 7:40 AM