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July 15, 2009

It's hard to pass up a sale.

Crowds swarming the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris - February 2008.

Just as some people watch eBay obsessively or read blogs or online news or adult content, or can't go a day without twittering or facebooking or whatevering, my online addiction is travel websites. My name is Laurie, and I'm an addict. Hello, Laurie.

I don't have many vacation days left for the year (and it's only July!) so I had planned to stay here for the rest of the year and save my money and my vacation days in case my parents ever make good on their threat to come west. But on my lunch breaks, I still troll online travel sites like I'm on a bender. I just can't break the habit. And there are so many good deals out there -- LAX to Milan for $628 roundtrip including taxes and fees (I saw that one on the American Airlines website last week, it may be gone by now.) If that deal is gone, no need to fret because as soon as one deal evaporates another springs up. It's amazing. I haven't seen fares like this since right after 9/11 when the SARS scare hit and nobody was flying.

If you have the means this is a GREAT time to travel. Everything is on sale! Just about anywhere you want to go, you can find a deal for it. Now I feel like a drug dealer pushing my addiction onto others. But it's the one thing I love almost as much as staying home. I'm such a homebody, every single time I book a trip I get an instant high followed by an instant shock of fear ... what if the cats get sick while I'm gone? What if something happens to my house? What if there's an earthquake while I'm gone and I can't get back in time? What if my plane crashes? What if the hotel has bedbugs? You name it, I fear it. The exhilarating part is having all that fear and anxiety and going anyway. Ok, "exhilarating" isn't the right word. But you get the idea, I would rather stay home than do anything else in the world except -- every now and then --to run off and catch a plane to somewhere a million miles away.

One of the things I love best about traveling is that it gets me out of my head. I've read that some people feel this way about rock climbing or extreme sports, because you stay completely focused on the present moment, almost like a form of meditation. Traveling is like that to me. You show up in this new place and from the moment the plane lands your brain is focused almost entirely on the pressing needs: Where do I go now? How do I say, "Thank you" in this language? How do I get a taxi? Where is the hotel? How do I get this weird faucet to work? Is the museum on the left or am I on the wrong street? How does this ticket machine work? Is that my bus?

Everyone trying to work the ticket machines, London Victoria station. - November 2008.

And of course, there's the happy feeling of going home again, too, where you love your own bed even more than you did before you left. I get just as excited to come home from a trip as I do to go on one in the first place.

Planning for a vacation is such a uniquely individual experience. I have a coworker who recently went to Paris for a ten-day stay and she had each day mapped out with an itinerary, sights to see, where they would go and eat and visit. I loved watching her plan and I gave her all my books on France (even the fiction books!) and maps and anything I could to help her. I enjoy buying travel books and I have guides to all sorts of places, but I rarely plan anything for my own trips aside from my flight and hotel. I just figure I'll work it out once I get there. When I was married, I used to just book the flight and a rental car and we'd show up and start driving and just stay wherever we ended up, which is how I once drove from Denmark to Poland and back. This method of touristing would drive some people insane, just as I would be miserable on a schedule. Everyone is different.

It is very important to stay hydrated properly when journeying to new places.

I love packing, though. Making my lists -- there are so many lists to make! -- I start off with a list in my spiral notebook of things I don't want to forget ("Make shuttle reservation to airport." and "Don't forget portable alarm clock this time!!!") Besides my passport the most valuable travel essential for me is my little tiny Asus eeePC (here's a link to it on amazon.com -- it's only $299! Crazy!) It has definitely paid for itself in the past two years just from the few trips I've made. For one thing, it didn't cost much to start with so I'm not crazy paranoid something with happen to it when I travel like I would be with my regular laptop. It weighs practically nothing and it's unbearably cute but also very sturdy. It has lived through several accidental falls onto airplane floors and one embarrassing spillage incident in the TSA line. I book a hotel that offers WiFi, preferably for free, and then I use my eeePC to call my parents with Skype and check in, or call my catsitter ("Can you make sure Frankie isn't in the linen closet?"). I've used it to track down my lost luggage in France, look up gluten-free restaurants in London, research yarn shops in Dublin, and find the hours of the museums in Madrid. I'm also a great avoider, so I have no problem bringing along this mini-laptop and yet never once checking email or working while on vacation. And in a pinch I use it to watch movies off a USB drive, so it's entertaining, too.

In the lounge at LAX, waiting. - June 2009.

So there's the little mini eeePC, the iPod, headphones, camera, gadget chargers and converter. A guidebook, a map, sunglasses, or maybe depending on the location a scarf, hat, gloves. I put stuff in a little pile on the kitchen table as I think of it. Packing happens all-at-once, usually the night before I go (why do my vacations always seem to require me to wake at 3 a.m. and be on a shuttle at 4:45 a.m.?) I set out my little suitcase (I found a link to it online! That is the exact one I have, only mine is black. I love it so much that when I was searching for a link for you and saw it was on closeout, I bought this version in brown, too, because I may never find it again and it's the perfect size and it's way ON SALE.) The cats love sitting inside the suitcase while I get out packing cubes and sort through all my travel-size toiletries to find just the essentials. Each trip is different, and kind of the same. Checking stuff off the list as I go.

Luggage sitting on the hotel room floor in Madrid. This rolling carryon bag is much smaller than a standard bag and fits really well on the plane. I take a shoulder bag, too, and I'm done. - February 2009.

packing cubes
Packing Cube Set

There's another list, too -- stuff I have to do before I can safely leave. Arrange everything with the cat sitter, leave her a note (I am ridiculously overprepared), set out all the food and supplies enough to feed eleventy hundred cats, unplug this, set that, do this. And above all, I have to clean the house. I can't leave with a messy house! It's some weird combination of superstition, OCD and not wanting my cat sitter to think I have dustballs the size of compact cars. So the weekend before leaving I start cleaning, vacuuming, dusting, tidying everything up. And when I come home I am always so happy to see such a clean house.

Bob on the bed.

I can't believe I wasted so much time worrying that I would never travel again after my divorce. Going alone seemed impossible back then (lots of things seemed impossible.) Since starting all this solo roadtripping I've made odd discoveries, each time refining what I want or where to go. For example, now I know a trip of more than four solid days in one place will make me lonely, so I take short vacations. I like to hear a familiar voice, and I like the feeling of not being irrevocably loose in the world, so I call my parents at least once when I'm away. They're always happy to hear from me and the details of wherever I am, it's nice. I tuck a book in my purse before leaving the hotel room to see the sights so that I can read and peoplewatch alone from a table. I go to the grocery store wherever I visit and buy water and wine and look at what people are putting in their baskets. I get up early and wander the streets before they get crowded. I try to take at least one picture before and after to bookend the trip, maybe a shot before I get on the plane and later, as I'm on my way home, a picture of the taxi or the airport or the waiting area.

And when I went to Hawaii over the holidays last year I discovered I had made an error in judgment, that location and timing are important factors when traveling alone but for different reasons than I expected. That was when I learned I should be careful not to pick places that are full of honeymooners and retirees and families at the peak of togetherness-time who stare at you for being the only person eating alone. The stares were not that bad, really, it was the comments (you know how people can be. Funny.) So, it's better for me traveling solo in a big city, or maybe just far away, but definitely not in a resort during a major holiday. Good to know!

And I started out traveling with a big suitcase and have pared it down to just a little pile of stuff on wheels. If that isn't a parallel with my life, I don't know what is. The places I have visited alone so far have been familiar, at least in the way cities in Western Europe are all sort of familiar. Maybe next year I'll try something new -- or not. There are no rules. It's not a test or a competition.

Whenever I get cold feet (usually right before the plane takes off) I remind myself that nobody ever rests on their deathbed thinking, "I should have spent more time at home watching TV." You don't have to go far to feel like you've traveled. The whole experience -- finding the ticket, booking the trip, making a list, packing, buying a map, getting ready, getting on the plane -- takes you out of the everyday and into a new frame of mind.

Anyway, if you can, this is a good time to snap up a cheap ticket to somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. And you don't even need a travel partner! I have found that a good book can be an excellent dinner companion in any situation.

Vacation, just after ordering dinner.

Posted by laurie at July 15, 2009 2:06 PM