5 Fun Pismo Beach Experiences

5 Fun Pismo Beach Experiences

Author: Jill Weinlein (More Trip Reviews by Jill Weinlein)
Date of Trip: November 2016

Pismo Beach offers a variety of family fun adventures for those driving up Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean from Southern to Northern California.

Checking into the Cottage Inn By The Sea it offers charming curb appeal, similar to the properties in Carmel, CA with an English Countryside design.

The oceanfront location has renovated rooms with some facing the Pacific Ocean. Inside the cozy lobby is a dining room that offers complimentary breakfast to guests in the morning starting at 7 a.m. In the evenings, guests sit at tables with food picked up or delivered from nearby restaurants. There is a large wall Scrabble board and board games for families to play together in this large room.

Our room 217 offered two queen size beds, a gas burning fireplace, complimentary wi-fi, flat screen television, wall safe, and shower/tub combination. With two windows our view was of two different parking lots, one in the front and one in the back. Next time I would request an oceanfront room. This property is located next to Highway 1 and the sound level can be loud. I recommend bringing earplugs. Also, our room didn’t have air-conditioning, so opening a window to let the cool sea air in, also allowed the sound of cars and trucks in. The oceanfront rooms offer sea breezes with the lulling sound of ocean waves in.

What I liked about this motor lodge was the small pool and hot tub, fire pit conversation areas along the ocean view bluff, and pathway leading to a wooden stairway to the expansive sandy beach.

Before walking on the beach in the morning, we enjoyed a breakfast of coffee, baked goods, hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, fresh and canned fruit cocktail.

Walking down the stairs towards the Pismo Beach pier, we collected seashells before walking out to the end and watching the surfers. Afterwards, we explored the small town of Pismo filled with a variety of surf shops, cafes, and boutiques.

Walking back to The Cottage Inn By The Sea, we saw pods of dolphins jumping into the air and splashing back into the ocean, while flocks of pelicans and other sea birds flew overhead.

Checking out of The Cottage Inn By The Sea, we first drove south of Pismo Beach is the Monarch Butterfly Cove. It’s open from late October through the month of February. This area houses the largest colony of butterflies with an average of 25,000 clustered in the limbs of Eucalyptus trees. For some reason, these Monarchs have a lifespan of up to six months, while most Monarch varieties live only six weeks. This area offers docents, a gift shop and educational signs.

Nearby is the Oceano Dunes, where visitors can pay $5 to drive five miles on the hard sand beach along the water’s edge. This is a popular spot with RV owners and ATV riders. Stop your car to climb up the vast array of sand dunes offering Pacific Ocean views from Avila Beach to Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Within is fifteen minute drive is Avila Beach and the Avila Valley Farm with farm animals, a fresh fruit and vegetable stand, sweet shoppe filled with candy treats, tractor and pony rides on the weekend. Inside the produce stand there is a basket of lettuce in a plastic bag to purchase for $1 and hand feed the farm animals. They also have a cafe selling hot dogs, sandwiches and barbecue.

About five miles away along See Canyon is the Gopher Glen Apple Farm set among oak, sycamore and maple trees. The farm has a variety of 100 year old apple trees that grow Fuji apples, Jonadelicious, Pippin Granny Smith and Pink Ladies. Visitors can purchase a cup of hot apple cider, or go to the refrigerator section for quarts and half gallon jugs. There is a apple tasting counter inside the gift shop, where you can purchase a bag of apples by the pound. It’s a good stop before heading back home to to a new travel destination.

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Author: arzu altinay
Date of Trip: April 2017

Day 1: Tallinn amazed us incredibly with its historical charm! It was a three day visit to the capital of Estonia which is the shining star of Northern Europe. Weather was still cold with lots of wind but we had the sun every day.

The small restaurants around the main town square were getting ready for the season which would be April to October. They put sun terraces for visitors to enjoy and relax at the end of a touring day.

This small Baltic city has the Medieval Old Town at its heart: an area of cobblestone streets, gabled houses, churches and squares all in one compact space.

Tallinn boomed as a key Hanseatic commercial hub from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Old Town has long been the main draw for newcomers – in fact it’s so unique that UNESCO added it to its World Heritage List in 1997. Tallinn was the capital of culture in 2011.

Other regions of the city reflect different ages, from the romantic, Tsarist-era Kadriorg Park to the unforgettable, early 20th-century wooden house district of Kalamaja. A modern shopping and business district in the city centre completes the tableau, making Tallinn an amazing blend of old and new.

Ever since the days of Viking traders Tallinn has been a meeting point for various cultures and nations, so visitors coming from any direction are bound to find something familiar, and something exotic, when they explore the city.

Estonia’s various rulers – Danish, Livonian, German, Swedish and Russian – have each left their mark on Tallinn’s landscape, and their influence can be found reflected in the city’s architecture, art and even its restaurant cuisine.

Our first day we walked around the Old Town on our own and ended up at the Peppersack restaurant which had a very Medieval decor with wooden tables, high chairs and even the waiters dressed accordingly! We enjoyed good, dark Estonian beer with the local black bread made of rye and molasses.

At 8 pm every night, they also do a sword fight which was a pleasant surprise!

Tallinn was easy to reach; we were on a Turkish Air flight and the journey took 3 hours from Istanbul. Once we arrived, finding a taxi was very easy and getting into town was a snap. It cost only 8 Euros in a comfortable and modern vehicle.

Lennart Meri International Airport is only 4 km from the city centre, putting it just ten minutes away from the downtown hotels.

Thanks to its small size and compact layout, Tallinn is easy to explore on foot, eliminating the headaches of bus transfers and taxi rides.

Day 2:

We found that walking around Tallinn is a joy. Now that we covered the Old Town on our own ,we wanted to discover some of the other neighbourhoods around in our second day.

Tallinn has a great seaside walk from the Old Town until Kalamaja… it’s called the Culture Kilometre although it’s a bit longer around 2 km.

It’s a special walk with plenty of historical and industrial vibes from different eras along the seaside. It gave us a completely different perspective away from the old town’s touristy atmosphere. Although most of it has changed after 2011 when Amazing Tallinn was the Culture Capital of Europe, the Culture Kilometre is still worth the time to walk and discover. Today only a small part of the original walkway exists as the seaside area is undergoing major redevelopment.

The official starting point of Tallinn Culture Kilometre is located by Linnahall car park right at the harbour. It’s only a 5 minute walk down from the Old Town in front of the Tallinnk Spa Hotel.

Keep going until you reach the Patarei Prison and Sea Fortress on the right. This imposing seaside complex is a good place to peek into the Soviet era prison life in all its misery, although now they do not let people in anymore.

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Summer Fun on Catalina Island

Summer Fun on Catalina Island

Author: Jill Weinlein (More Trip Reviews by Jill Weinlein)
Date of Trip: May 2017

While in California, be sure to plan an overnight on Catalina Island. Just 26 miles by boat from Long Beach on the Catalina Express passenger boats to the Mediterranean style city of Avalon. This picturesque town is just one mile wide and one mile long. With a population of a little over 3,600 people, it’s a fun place to explore the sights, enjoy the beach, rent a bicycle or golf cart, and get a bite to eat.

One of my favorite spots to stay overnight is just steps from the sand at the boutique two story Pavilion Hotel. Located in the heart of Avalon and within walking distance to the Catalina Express boat terminal, it’s a garden oasis with a center courtyard dotted with palm trees and drought tolerant plants. Comfortable upholstered lounge chairs are arranged in pairs offering guests an outdoor area to rest, read a book, and relax during the complimentary sunset wine and cheese party. Another popular social spot is an array of rattan chairs surrounding a sextagon shaped firepit with the names of the Channel Islands chain.

I spent one night in a Deluxe King room (number 315) on the ground floor towards the back of the property. Near the front door is a semi-private small patio with two chairs. Inside the renovated room is a large king size bed with luxury linens and a very comfortable mattress. In the evening, housekeeping comes in for turndown service, leaving a piece of chocolate and bottle of water. The room has is a flat screen television, a small refrigerator and coffee maker with tea and coffee.

The bathroom is clean, yet small and dated with an older shower and tub combination. My room had one sink in the dressing area and white bathrobes.

Guests wake up to a complimentary breakfast offering hot and cold items in the library/reception room. There were various stations with small quiches, applewood smoked bacon, savory sausage, bagels, toast and pastries, yoghurt, fresh-squeezed juices and gourmet illy coffee.

The staff was friendly and offer luggage storage for guests catching a boat back to the mainland later than 11 a.m.

Sights To See
Be sure to see the new Chihuly Exhibit inside the 18,000 sq. ft., Catalina Island Museum. Dale Chihuly is an American sculptor who transforms glass pieces into exquisite art. His work has been shown internationally and is now in Southern California in Avalon. Chihuly’s most iconic works, including Seaforms inspired from the sea, Red Reeds (found also at the Clinton Library), Mille Fiori (Bellagio lobby), the Sea Blue and Green Tower, and a awe-inspiring 18-foot chandelier hanging from the soaring lobby ceiling are featured in the museum open daily from 10am-5pm. This exhibit is at the Catalina Island Museum until December 11, 2017.

The Island Spa is an ideal spot to soak up some sunshine, take in harbor views, go for a swim or relax in a hot tub before and after a massage or facial. Located in the historic Spanish style El Encanto Center, the spa offers a gift shop, exercise studio, treatment rooms, cafe and seperate locker rooms with sauna and showers for men and women.

Take in a Movie
In the evenings, on the ground floor of the iconic Catalina Casino (built not as a gambling casino, but a dance pavilion) is a large movie theatre showing a feature film nightly. On some evenings an organist plays on the original organ brought to the Casino in the late 1920s. The musical show begins one hour before the movie.

Be sure to dine at The Avalon Grille, just doors down from The Pavilion Hotel, before seeing a movie. Besides offering great people watching, harbor and casino views, it’s one of the nicest restaurants in Avalon. I took advantage of the Dinner & A Movie Special. I received a free movie pass when I mentioned to my server Ryan that I was seeing Beauty and The Beast. With each entree purchase between 5–6 p.m., guests receive a pass ($15 value). The center bar inside the restaurant makes a special martini in honor of Philip K. Wrigley, the son of William Wrigley Jr. who purchased Catalina Island in 1919. It’s made with 3.5 ounces of Hendrix Gin and a dash of Vermouth.

Today, the Santa Catalina Island Company is owned by descendants of William Wrigley Jr. They continue to attract Southern Californians, boaters, cruise line passengers, and visitors from around the world seeking a relaxed getaway offering a fun, small town vibe.

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Travel Tech: 7 Simple Hacks to Make Your Trip Better

Our increasing reliance on technology — and especially internet-connected technology — has been a tremendous boon to travelers. The benefits and conveniences offered by fingertip access to travel guides, reviews, banking, reservation information, flight updates and more make it seem sometimes like the internet was created to serve travelers.

couple with tablet and map

But traveling with more and more tech devices has created a host of new challenges for globetrotters, from protecting your personal information to simply keeping everything powered up and running.

You can find all kinds of products dedicated to solving those problems for you — device-charging suites, accessories to accessories, apps upon apps upon apps — but I’m always reluctant to solve the problem of stuff not working on the road by taking along even more stuff. It seems like the travel tech equivalent of putting bad money after good.

Over time I have come up with a few easy hacks to help with many of these problems. For the purposes of this article, I had a few criteria for inclusion:

1. A low “packing footprint” — no one wants too much stuff when traveling

2. Solves an actual problem travelers encounter frequently, not a made-up problem

3. Can help on any kind of trip, from a visit to the grandparents to a long international journey

So here are my low- and mid-tech hacks to solve the high-tech dilemmas we all face in the world of modern travel.

Keeping stuff charged may be the most confounding and anxiety-causing task of modern travel; sometimes it seems there aren’t enough outlets in the world. Having your own mini-power strip can guarantee you (and others) stay charged up when it counts.

In older hotels, outlets can be scarce and/or difficult to get to. It wasn’t too long ago that the typical hotel room needed maybe three outlets: one for the TV, one for a bedside light and one in the bathroom for a razor or hair dryer. In most such rooms, every outlet is either in use or impossible to reach without moving a large piece of furniture.

Today it isn’t unusual to have three or four things plugged in, even when traveling alone; I almost always have a laptop, a smartphone and a camera battery charger, and sometimes a tablet as well. Add family to the mix, and the number soars — suddenly you’re unplugging the TV or trying to charge water-sensitive gadgets in the bathroom.

A mini-power strip can solve the problem very easily. Even if you have to pull out the bed a little, at least you are forced to do so only once. Plug everything in, done.

A mini-power strip can also come in handy at the airport, where competition for outlets can be intense. Even at airports where charging kiosks have been installed, walking up to a kiosk with only your device and a sad expression might prompt mercy from another traveler whose device is almost charged — but walking up with a mini-power strip that you can both share makes it a lot easier for him or her to take pity on you.

Here is a compact travel power strip that also has USB ports for charging mobile devices; pretty clever, and a very low packing footprint.

As an add-on hack to the outlet problem mentioned above, these simple adapters can come through for you if you are staying in older buildings that do not have three-prong outlets. For example, Senior Editor Sarah Schlichter ran into this issue at a small motel in Maine, where she could not plug in a laptop with a grounding prong. One of these simple, small and cheap adapters is a good solution.

International adapters have also become far more clever than the bag of individual plugs folks used to pack — and lose, and buy again, and pack, and lose, and buy again. An all-in-one adapter like this one from Travel Smart can help you plug in pretty much anywhere on the planet.

Electricity Overseas: Converters, Adapters and Beyond

Speaking of waterproofing, there is a truly easy way to protect your non-water-resistant tablet/smartphone/camera/other device: put it in a sealable plastic bag. These come in all sizes, from sandwich bags perfect for a smartphone to very large ones that can contain a tablet or even DSLR camera.

This really works. A serious runner I know uses his iPhone to track his marathon training not by purchasing an expensive waterproof case, but simply by putting it in a small sandwich bag, sealing it and taking off. A few weeks back he was playing with his kids and fell into the pool with the bagged phone still in his pocket. When he got out, it was the only dry thing on him.

The packing footprint of a few plastic bags is almost zero, and you can save yourself a lot of headaches by having them around.

Nearly every internet connection you’re likely to use on the road is public; the warning “this connection is unsecured and others may see your information” is a staple of the travel experience. I won’t go into all the details of public internet connections (you can read more about that in 11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling) but suffice it to say that pretty much anyone who really wants to see what you are doing can do so.

There are numerous ways to protect yourself, however, including the following options:





cloud storage

The 21st century has created a new breed of “digital souvenir” that requires almost as much careful tending as the old kind that you used to wrap and pack safely for your trip home. A cloud storage site — such as Google Drive, Dropbox or a service like Evernote — offers you a place to upload your vacation photos, videos, photos of your parking spot, scans of documents and more.

Having a place to send all of this data for safekeeping can keep your device’s hard drive from filling up, but it’s not just about storage space; if your device is lost, stolen or broken, you will be glad to have a backup. So when you have a chance (best when on a Wi-Fi connection so you don’t incur massive data charges), upload all your stuff onto a cloud storage site so you have it when you get home.

Avoid Smartphone Sticker Shock: How to Pay Less Overseas

While the cloud is great for backing up or offloading large amounts of data, it’s overkill for a few lines of info you need to access quickly and frequently — so an email to yourself is the perfect solution. Since storing passport numbers, frequent flier numbers, reservation numbers and local contact info on your laptop or smartphone leaves you vulnerable to anyone who gets their hands on the device, you will want an easily accessible but somewhat secure and remote place to store these.

One of the easiest ways to have quick access to important numbers and information while traveling is to send it to yourself in an email. Then when you need it, you can log in and retrieve the information. In some cases this might entail some expensive data charges, but if the situation warrants it, it is a small price to pay. You can even do this with a photo of your passport, which offers some hard evidence as to your passport number, citizenship, etc.

Email is not 100 percent secure, but compared to many of your options, it is as close as it gets. A simple trick to “encrypt” your information would be to write it out in a non-intuitive format, so you might type out credit card number 4170-1234-5678-9101 as follows:

4170 S Main St.

1234 W 125th St.

5678 N Thunder Rd.

9101 Exile St.

You get the idea — let the 10-year-old in you come up with a cool code.

And remember always to log out of your email accounts while traveling; you don’t need to make this stuff easy on the bad guys.

8 Things Not to Bring Home from a Trip

Talk about a low-tech solution with a small packing footprint, whew — but think about how many times you might have to write something down as you travel. When your phone dies, or you want to jot down someone’s email address, or you need to leave a note, a pen is invaluable.

The perfect example? Filling out customs forms. On a smartphone- and iPad-infested flight back from Amsterdam this year, tens of thousands of dollars of tech did nothing to help the countless passengers who were clamoring for a pen during the descent — or the flight attendants who were rolling their eyes as they tried to shuttle pens up and down the aisles.

A pen, a pen, my smartphone for a pen!

If you have any other tech hacks that meet the criteria above, let us know in the comments below.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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When Do You Need a Tour Guide?

Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we tend to be go-it-alone types when we travel — the name of the website would almost demand it. We believe in the fundamental fun and value of hitting the road with only your wits and experience (and a credit card, admittedly).

That said, we can also understand the value an experienced, knowledgeable and outgoing tour guide can offer, from lowering language barriers to recommending the best non-touristy local restaurants.

senior tour guide with group in woods

Not sure when you need a tour guide? Here are my suggestions to help you figure out when to hire a guide and when to go it alone.

1. When you have very little time.

A knowledgeable guide can lend a laser focus to any sightseeing visit, and this may never be so valuable as when you have very little time in one place. The right guide can give you a customized and thrilling blitz through the destination of your choice.

2. When visiting ports on a cruise.

Talk about having very little time! After a recent cruise in South America, traveler Judie House wrote to tell me that rather than follow the hordes coming off the ship to the same shops, she hired a tour guide in advance, with instructions to get her and her companion away from large groups and into nature for their half-day stay in port. The guide showed up at the ship ahead of time with a comfortable car, and proceeded to drive her and her companion up into the hills to a remote and little-known waterfall, followed by a lunch at a village eatery, all with nary a fellow cruiser in sight. They were back at the port in plenty of time to reboard comfortably, and House said it felt like they had been away for days, not mere hours.

3. When revisiting a place.

If you are visiting a location you have visited countless times before — like your in-laws’ home town or the same city you have been visiting since you were a kid — hire a guide who can give you an offbeat look at a familiar place. A talented guide with a heap of local knowledge will have something to offer even those who think they’re sick of a particular place.

10 Hardcore Tips for Frequent Travelers

4. When visiting dangerous or chaotic locations.

If your destination has a reputation for dangerous or unpredictable street life — a trip I took to Tangier comes to mind — hiring a good tour guide can not only save you time, but also keep you safe and out of tight spots.

5. When visiting extremely popular locations.

A good tour guide will always know the best hours to visit attractions, when prices are best, which places you can skip, how to avoid rush hour, what is closed or under construction, and any number of tricks and tactics that will help you get the most out of a heavily visited location. You can also inquire if the guide has special access or rates. A good guide might bring you to the Grand Canyon early in the morning before the crowds arrive, or arrange for a private, after-hours tour of the Vatican.

Why You Still Need a Travel Agent

6. On long stays.

When you are staying for more than a few days in the same location — let’s say you have a two-week vacation rental in London — consider hiring a tour guide for the first couple of days to help you get your bearings early in your trip … or perhaps merely to get all the touristy stuff out of the way. Alternately, you can hire a guide late in your stay when you have exhausted the obvious attractions and want to seek out a deeper, more informed or more intimate knowledge of a place.

7. When visiting historic destinations.

In places that are exceptionally rich in historical or cultural significance, an educated tour guide can offer a depth of experience and knowledge that goes beyond guidebook snippets or plaque-reading. A good guide can explain the stories behind the complex carvings on an Indian temple, or veer away from the canned history of Thomas Jefferson to describe what life at Monticello was really like.

white-water rafting

8. On an adventure trip.

Safaris, mountain climbing, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, white-water rafting … unless you are an absolute expert at your chosen adventure, hiring a guide may be a matter of life and death. White-water rafting down the Colorado or piloting a fishing boat back to port in a storm are not like hiring a rowboat in Central Park, and no one should treat it as such. Even if you are an old hand at the particular skill in question, it’s still a good idea to hire a guide who knows the local area and can help you navigate an unfamiliar place.

9. When language barriers are high.

When visiting a place where you do not speak the language and the locals are extremely unlikely to speak yours — for most of our readers, that will mean places where exposure to the English language is minimal — a local tour guide who does speak your language can be invaluable in countless ways. When choosing a guide, try to chat with the guide by phone in advance to determine how strong his or her command of your language really is.

10. To hand off the logistics of travel.

The hassles of obtaining tickets, making reservations, checking operating hours, figuring out options when you have problems — all of this is easy stuff for a good tour guide. If you are on vacation and don’t want to have these mundane tasks on your plate while traveling, hire a guide to take them on for you.

11. When you don’t want to drive.

There are any number of reasons not to want to drive while traveling — you don’t want to spend your vacation getting lost, you can’t read the road signs, you’re not confident driving on the opposite side of the road, your spouse is a terrible copilot and you just want to have fun instead of arguing. Hiring a tour guide to do the driving for you can save you a lot of headaches and unwanted distractions.

12. On hikes or nature excursions.

On a boat trip in Costa Rica a few years ago, we took the launch into the jungle, where a guide who knew our captain was waiting for us. This guide could find quarter-inch-long camouflaged frogs in such abundance that it felt like a Disney World ride with planted robotic animals. To the uninformed eye, the forest around you can seem like a pleasant bunch of trees, but an experienced nature guide can point you to the teeny little poison dart frog on a branch, identify that raucous bird cry overhead or even keep you out of the way of poisonous animals and plants.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Hearing about a recent IndependentTraveler.com staff discussion concerning the world’s longest flights made me remember my first true long-haul flight to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Olympics. About six hours into the 15-hour flight, I was feeling strong and confident. I clearly remember thinking, “Six hours down, nine to go. No sweat, I got this.”

Four long, boring hours later, it was a different story; you could have poured me into a bucket. “Five hours to go? I don’t got this.”

airplane plane woman air travel flight window wing

But get there I did. Unfortunately, that meant I had to get back as well, a flight on which I made a serious tactical error, which led to misery for me and entertainment for my friends on the flight — about which I will tell more in due course.

However, not all long-haul flights have to be miserable; on one direct flight from Tokyo to New York, I was nearing the end of a book I was enjoying immensely, and remember distinctly thinking, “No, no, just a little more time!” when the pilot told us over the in-flight PA that we had started our final descent. Here are 10 tips for preventing boredom, dehydration, deep-vein thrombosis, sleep deprivation and more so you can confidently say “I got this” the next time you are imprisoned in a metal tube for an entire waking day of your life.

When traveling long-haul, you have no better friend on the planet than your frequent flier miles. On the Tokyo – Newark flight I was disappointed to see come to an end, I enlisted the help of my travel agent to find flights on which I could burn up all of my Continental miles to upgrade my entire trip. It meant catching puddle jumpers to my final destination in Japan (Gifu), but a couple of short extra flights were a small price to pay for 27 hours of first-class legroom, fully reclining chairs, edible meals, entertainment and breathing space.

If you stop reading at this point in the article, you almost need to know nothing more than this — by hook or crook, try to get an upgrade. (Even Dr. Timothy Hosea, from whom you will hear below, offered this as his first and most important suggestion.)

First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade

You will want to have a rock-solid plan for frittering away several hours of your flight, and I don’t mean working; staring at spreadsheets and writing proposals may burn up hours, but it does not make them vanish. You want these hours to disappear almost without a trace. Think headphones and Hollywood blockbusters. Getting a lot of work done is fine — rarely do you have 15 consecutive hours without a phone or email, so I encourage bringing some work — but work will fail you when you get to the brutal middle hours of this ordeal. Headphones and Hollywood; don’t stray from this.

Spring for the airline’s headphones, pay for and watch every movie, swipe your card for the DIRECTV, bring your iPad crammed with your favorite flicks — whatever it takes. See also our list of the best airplane books; these page-turners can definitely kill a few hours.

9 Must-Dos Before a Long-Haul Flight

While checked baggage fees are inspiring travelers to carry on more and more stuff, on a long-haul flight this could burn you; anything that is under the seat in front of you just means less legroom and a more cramped living space for 15 or 16 hours. Don’t bring so much on that you compete for your own sleeping space.

When it comes to surviving flights, I am not a gear guy. I can’t be bothered to lug around neck pillows, eye masks, earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, etc. — except on a long-haul flight. As I note above, your total carry-on haul should be limited, but you may want to consider some of these relatively small survival tools. Your body and brain will thank you for every small comfort you can provide, and the inconvenience of packing and carrying these around is dwarfed by the misery of 15 hours in flight with crying children, pilot announcements, engine noise and a major crick in your neck. Gear up.

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Don’t count on a long-haul flight as a good place to catch up on sleep — it’s not. As attractive and intuitive as it seems to get on a long-haul flight extremely tired, hoping to sleep the whole way, you are in for a world of hurt if you can’t sleep for any reason. You will be on the plane long enough to catch a few winks even if you are somewhat rested, and my advice is to take it when it comes; if your eyes start to droop, get out the eye covers and earplugs, and go with it. If you throw away a solid two-hour nap on a few extra rounds of Angry Birds, you might well be angry at yourself later.

A long-haul flight gives unscrupulous travelers plenty of time to size up the location of your wallet, wait until you fall asleep and make a move on your luggage. Secure your valuables deep inside your bags where it would take a TSA X-ray machine to find them. Consider keeping items like your passport, credit cards and cash in a money belt under your clothes.

7 Ways to Keep Your Stuff Safe When You Fly

If you are planning to use sleep aids (including “natural” methods such as melatonin, or prescription drugs such as Ambien), try them before you fly with them. A few years ago a friend gave me an Ambien pill for a red-eye flight from Honolulu to New York City, and the drug acted more like a stimulant than a sleep aid. I was awake the entire flight and felt wretched to boot. These drugs can vary greatly in how they affect individuals, so you will want to try them at home before you rely on them on the plane.

Dr. Timothy Hosea, team physician and Chair of the Sports Medicine and Research Committee for the United States national rowing teams, sometimes prescribes sleep aids for his athletes, but notes, “If you feel you need a sleep aid but haven’t used those drugs before, you should probably try taking Tylenol PM or Benadryl. A prescription is fine with your doctor’s approval, but don’t experiment on a long flight; [the plane won’t] stop for you!”

Dr. Hosea also says that, as the team doctor, he does not take any medication while flying with the squad in case someone needs care. “I bring a book, watch the movies and try to let the flight pass,” he says. His approach is appropriate for other travelers who need to have their wits about them, such as folks flying with children, for example. If someone could potentially need you to be 100 percent during the flight, you should forgo any sleep medication. For more advice, see Sleeping on Planes.

On the flight back from Sydney mentioned above, I called ahead to get my seat reassigned to an exit row — big mistake. Unbeknownst to me, the exit row seat I chose was a window seat at one of the big, thick exit doors, which encroached on my leg area such that I had to sit sideways in the seat for the entire flight. It was also more like an “exit aisle,” located right at a restroom, so there was endless and noisy foot traffic the entire flight. I was lucky that the rest of the row was empty, but it wasn’t much help; the armrests did not go up, so I couldn’t lie across the three seats in the aisle.

airplane seats

Needless to say, mine would have been a “yellow” or even “red” seat on the SeatGuru seating chart if it had existed in 2000 (the site was launched the following year). Eventually I went around the aircraft collecting all the unused pillows and blankets I could find, piled them up in each of the three seats, and created a workable (but in truth not very comfortable) platform across all three seats — and got a very few winks of sleep during the flight. I guess it was fairly comical, as friends all took pictures of me during the flight for their amusement. Glad you had a fun flight, guys.

Before you choose, think hard about your usual preference of exit vs. aisle seat; it may be different on a long-haul flight than on a shorter flight. If you usually choose an aisle seat, consider whether you want your long, Ambien-enhanced sleep to be interrupted by an aisle mate; similarly, if you usually choose a window, you could get trapped in there by a snoring person in a prescription drug-induced stupor. To learn more, see Get the Best Airplane Seat.

Failing the ability to choose great seats before your flight, try again at the gate. If the flight is not full, the gate agent may be able to see an empty row, or put you and a traveling partner in a “window and aisle” configuration that reduces the likelihood of having someone sit in the middle seat, thereby getting you a seat and a half, at least.

Hydration: If you think hydration is a concern on a cross-country flight, try tripling or quadrupling your time in the air; you might as well spend 15 hours lying on the desert floor. Imagine you are going to walk from Flagstaff to Winona, Arizona. How much water would you bring? Try to drink about that much on a 16-hour flight.

Dr. Hosea recommends drinking “electrolyte solutions, Gatorade being the best known, instead of solely water.” Hosea says that maintaining electrolyte balance is important, and that you don’t want to become completely diluted with water, particularly for older folks or people with other medical problems.

How to Fight Jet Lag

Deep vein thrombosis: DVT, the formation of blood clots in deep veins, is a known (if occasionally overstated) risk on longer flights. According to the National Institutes of Health, the risk of developing DVT increases when flights go longer than four hours. The NIH’s tips include walking up and down the aisles of the plane; moving, flexing and stretching your legs to encourage blood flow, especially in your calves; wearing loose and comfortable clothing; drinking plenty of fluids; and avoiding alcohol. Also, if you’re at increased risk for DVT, your doctor may recommend wearing compression stockings while traveling or taking a blood-thinning medicine before you fly.

Dr. Hosea notes that the combination of being immobile along with the effects of dehydration increases the risk of DVT on long flights. He strongly recommends the following during long trips:

– Hydrate well the night before the flight, preferably with electrolyte drinks.

– Don’t drink alcohol the night before the flight.

– Avoid diuretics such as coffee, soft drinks and even chocolate (all of which contain caffeine).

– If you have no issue with ulcers, take a baby aspirin the night before and day of your flight.

– Get an aisle seat or exit row so you can get up and walk around whenever possible.

Susan Francia, an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, has taken to wearing compression socks on long flights to competitions, although she has stopped short of wearing a full body suit. (Hosea discounts the need for the body suit as well: “You are really worried only about your ankles and calves.”) Francia has noticed a positive effect from the compression socks, which Hosea notes can be simple “support hose.”

“I did notice that my ankles were smaller,” Francia says, “probably because they were mashed into old lady socks!”

Colds, the flu, bacteria, etc.: As I wrote in Avoiding the Airplane Cold, it isn’t “air quality” that is of concern when you are flying, or recycled air, or anything of the sort — it is your body’s compromised ability to deal with normal bacteria and viruses that puts you in danger of getting sick after a flight.

That is not to say that the general environment on a plane doesn’t add to your risk of getting sick. Recent studies have found that the water coming out of aircraft sink faucets is often rife with bacteria from sitting in murky holding bins; that the seats, pillows and blankets on planes are more germ-ridden than your laundry basket; that your tray table is probably dirtier than your own bathroom floor; and that the seatback pockets — well, you don’t even want to know, apparently.

Francia recalls a flight on the way to the Rowing World Championships last year where she considered wearing a face mask; the entire U.S. rowing team had contracted the swine flu on a World Cup trip earlier that summer, and she was being cautious. Francia asked a flight attendant what she thought. “Good idea, but it won’t help,” was the verdict. There is just too much stuff all around you to win that war. In the end, your best strategy is to bring along some bacteria-killing wipes, clean up your seat area as best you can and relax; there’s not much more you can do.

Let’s face it: electrolytes, compression socks, movie after movie, and aspirin don’t change the fact that you are stuck inside a metal can for a whole day. Just keep reminding yourself that this too shall pass — although I recommend saving your “I got this” until the wheels touch the ground.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.com.

10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers

Let’s all agree that the airlines often behave like monsters that need to be tamed, even caged. Okay, done. But who of us would deny that, as often as not, it’s our fellow travelers who are the true ogres of the travel experience?

annoying traveler

Following are some of the most egregious (and common) offenses of our fellow travelers. Have you ever spotted these annoying plane passengers?

These come in all stripes: too many bags, oversized bags, refusal to put bags in the overhead bins, hogging the overhead bins, showdowns when attendants insist you check them, etc., etc., ad nauseam, world without end.

Old news, I know, but it’s not like anyone ever learns.

I’ve met some interesting folks on planes; in fact, I find most people interesting in some way or another. Just not three-and-a-half-hours-nonstop interesting.

I have a friend who is always getting this one: “You live in Seattle? I’m going to be visiting Seattle! I could give you a call when I get there…”

Seatbacks and tray tables, the heroes of in-flight announcements, are the tools of choice of most offenders; see The
Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room
for a hard look at this one.

Another: There are two seats, one armrest between them. Seems to me like it’s shared space. We learn this stuff in kindergarten; why do so many folks forget it on planes?

As regular readers know, I pay my own airfare, and I fly coach. But if you’re in first or business class, why waste your seat scowling at everyone boarding the plane schlumping their way back to coach. Some more Perrier, thanks…

(I know, worrying about this nonsense is a waste of my time, but I’m always astounded at how consistent these folks are with this one.)

First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade

I love my pets. I love my friends’ pets. I love strangers’ pets. But I don’t love your dander factory of a cat so much that you should feel free to let it crawl across both of us in flight.

As much as I like the idea of bringing my dog along, I don’t think I’ll ever do it again after having seen a baggage handler drop my dog’s cage during a connection through St. Louis. When my traumatized dog was delivered to me at the trip’s end in a completely collapsed, destroyed cage, the skycaps hovered waiting for a tip. Then they saw my face and nearly sprinted away.

One reader suggested to me that the same goes for kids, but that’s another story entirely. (See An Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids for one perspective on the debate.) Traveling with kids — which I believe is fantastic when done correctly — presents its own special set of challenges, so I’ll leave this for another time.

10 Ways to Be a Less Annoying Travel Companion

I’m as helpful as the next guy, always willing to lend a hand to a fellow traveler. So please don’t take advantage of me.

Some favorites:

“Uh, do you mind if we switch seats? I have a seat in the last row of the plane because I slept in and showed up late, but my companion and I want to sit together.”

dog in carrying case

“Uh, I see you don’t have anything under the seat in front of you. Do you mind if I put my things under your seat? I can’t fit these extra bags/my slobbering dog/my child that I smuggled onto the plane under my own seat.”

“Do you need your pillow? I know it’s an all-night red-eye, but I can’t sleep with just one pillow.”

“Are you going to watch a second movie? No? Can I use your headset?”

“I know there’s only one overhead bin for our whole row, but I have Mickey Mouse hats for my closest 200 friends and relatives back home. Can you find another place for your briefcase?”

You get the idea.

These are the people who get up to walk around while the flight attendants are carting food in the aisles, the folks who need to get their magazine out of the overhead bin just as you are falling asleep — the folks who do everything at the worst possible time.

These people pull their monstrous bags out of the overhead bin, then lean them on top of your seatback because they can’t stand up straight and can’t hold their suitcases themselves. Not only is this annoying; it’s dangerous as well.

The Most Annoying Airplane Behavior

My name is Ed, and I am a workaholic. However, I try not to inflict my habits on everyone around me.

For example, you’ve gotta love the folks who leave their cell phones on until the last possible second, subjecting everyone in earshot to the annual company sales report.

And just because you have a laptop out and feel busy and important doesn’t mean you have any rights to any part of your neighbor’s seat. Tuck your elbows in and pile your papers in your lap, please.

Boozing on planes is the primary cause of air rage incidents, bar (pun intended) none. I’d bet these incidents occur most often on delayed flights — that is, those flights where passengers have already had an opportunity to fuel up at the bar while waiting for boarding.

7 Ways to Cope with Airport Delays

Everyone knows that airplanes, buses and trains are petri dishes on wheels; in fact, many global epidemics are disseminated by air travelers.

There is nothing worse than sitting down next to a person who is gushing from every orifice, dabbing his raw-skinned snout with a tiny scrap of tissue and sharing his vile bug with everyone on the plane. (While you can bet these folks would be stingy about sharing the armrest, who would try to get that close?)

If you absolutely must fly when you’re sick, have a little courtesy. At the very least, take the most powerful drugs you can find, including a sleeping pill that just about stops your breathing and puts you under for the duration of the flight, and impose a self-quarantine as best you can. (For more on this topic, see Traveling While Contagious.)

Got another pet peeve to share? Post it in the comments below!

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

10 Ways to Get an Upgrade on Your Next Flight

When it comes to flight upgrades, the days of “dress nicely and maybe a gate agent will take a shine to you” are long gone. Today, nearly all upgrades are driven by airline status, class of service, amount paid, computer algorithms, and other dollar- and tech-driven factors — which makes it tougher, but not impossible, to snag an upgrade.

First, a quick explanation of “class of service.” We commonly think of just two to four main classes on airplanes, including first, business and economy, with the recent emergence of premium economy or some other similarly named intermediate class.

But the fact is that economy class can have nearly a dozen sub-classes, as outlined in this Points Guy article — and each of these class levels carries eligibility (or lack thereof) for various amenities, including upgrades.

Briefly, the very lowest levels of economy class will rarely be prompted to upgrade, or even eligible to upgrade. Before getting upgraded from the very cheapest fares you may see a pig sail by outside your airplane window.

Airline computer booking systems have become so sophisticated that most upgrades are doled out based on a complex brew of data, and it’s now much more likely that a computer (rather than a helpful airline agent) decides if you get an upgrade or if you are stuck in a middle seat in the back of the plane.
This article includes a couple of interesting graphics on how Delta and United assess upgrade eligibility.

In the end, the computer doesn’t know how you are dressed — it just knows how much and how often you pay the airline. Here are your best ways to get upgraded in age of kiosks that don’t care about your clothing.

If you fly a lot on the same airline, your options for getting upgrades soar. High-mile/point travelers are the first eligible and first chosen for most upgrades, so despite the fact that airline experts have been bemoaning the devaluing of airline miles for years, if you are a high-mileage and high-dollar flier, you will see greatly increased upgrade offers, often at no cost.

First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade

In addition to helping you rack up miles or points, some airline credit cards also qualify you for upgrades reserved for only the top levels of loyalty programs. The Points Guy has a list of the best cards this month that’s worth a look. For more information, see How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card.

As suggested above, folks who have purchased fares in the highest grade of service are most likely to see upgrade options in the days before their travel, at online or airport check-in and even at the gate. Read more on this below.

Last year, American was upgrading passengers based on both elite status and the time you get on the waiting list (more or less first come, first served). Recently it has changed to priority based on annual spending, and the importance of timing is lessened, but there still seems to be some advantage to getting on the wait list early. Which leads us to the following…

Online check-in is available beginning 24 hours (usually to the minute) before your flight, and the early bird has the best chance of nabbing an upgrade — though you’ll usually have to pay for it. As the minutes pass and more travelers check in, some of those folks will be looking and paying for upgrades, and once those seats are gone, they’re gone.

If your specific fare class qualifies you for an upgrade if a seat becomes available, you may receive offers by email or text to purchase (most often in cash but sometimes for miles) the option to upgrade as flight time approaches and seat availability becomes more clear. These tend to disappear quickly, so if you miss the message, the seat won’t last long.

Quiz: How Likely Are You to Get a Flight Upgrade?

Again, these offers are mostly automated, but if you feel you meet any of the qualifications above, you should probably keep asking about upgrades all the way up to boarding time.

If you get through security and have not been able to upgrade yet, stop at the gate desk to ask to put be on a list if upgrades become available; the practice of overbooking exists in part because folks with refundable airfares often decide not to fly at the very last minute, and seats can come loose almost right up to the point the aircraft doors close.

Whenever airlines overbook flights and need folks to give up a seat, that is when you have the most leverage for getting concessions and upgrades from the airline. Most of us have been in airports listening to increasingly urgent announcements looking for volunteers to give up their seat; in that situation, you can go up to the gate, set your conditions and then let the airline decide if it can meet those conditions.

You might say, “I can volunteer to give up my seat for X hundred dollars in flight credit or an upgrade on my replacement flight, as long as I still get there by Y o’clock.” This may not work on the first round of volunteer requests, but when the gate agents come up on departure time and still need empty seats, they can often deliver quite a bit.

To learn more, see Overbooked Flight? How (Not) to Get Bumped.

If your itinerary is botched or implodes for some reason, particularly if it affects only you and no one else (such that the airline is not trying to accommodate lots of folks in the same situation), your case for an upgrade on a subsequent flight becomes more compelling. The airline is not obligated to upgrade you, but if this happens, pleasantly but firmly let the gate agents know that if an upgraded seat is available on your rebooked flight, you would greatly appreciate getting that seat.

If you have been extremely inconvenienced — maybe you were sent back to your hotel a couple of times, or you slept on the airport floor all night — let the gate folks know, as they may have some sympathy for you.

If, once all of the cost and technical factors are reckoned, a gate agent needs to pick someone to get a primo business class seat, it just might be the person who looks the part. The kiosk still doesn’t care, but in tricky situations eventually even the computers may have to cede authority to an actual person, and making a decent impression can’t hurt.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

With vacation days so precious — especially in the U.S., where people take an average of just 16.2 days off each year, according to the U.S. Travel Association — getting sick while traveling can be an incredibly frustrating experience.

sick cold sneeze tissue

Don’t want to lose half your vacation to an illness? The best remedy for travel sicknesses is prevention. To that end, here are 18 surefire ways to get sick while traveling; avoid them and you will feel like a champ on your next trip.

Most tap water is perfectly fine to drink — if you are a local. For travelers, however, the bacteria found in tap water around the world varies considerably, and your own belly biome may not stand up well to the local bacteria, even if you like the locals themselves.

The best approach here is to buy and drink bottled water only; in most cases bottled water has been filtered sufficiently not to cause trouble even for weaker stomachs. Beware, however, establishments that reuse old water bottles by refilling them at the tap. You will want to open your new water bottle yourself to be sure.

And don’t forget that ice cubes are typically made from tap water; this is an easy one to forget. Unless you know the ice was made with bottled or disinfected water, skip it.

It may be obvious, but this tip applies mostly to international travel; water standards throughout most of the U.S. allow you to ignore this advice stateside (as well as in Canada, Western Europe and other developed countries).

Similarly, if you eat food that was rinsed or washed in tap water (or worse, such as in a washing basin filled with water in which other food was also washed), you are vulnerable to the same bacteria as if you guzzled the water down yourself. This tends to happen most frequently with things like lettuce, onions and other vegetables that come from the ground, need washing and are typically served raw.

Drinking Water Safety

Airplanes are notoriously filthy, and they’re cleaned far less frequently than you might think; certainly there is no deep cleaning going on during the short period of deboarding and reboarding that goes on at most airline gates. While I do recommend checking out the emergency information at the beginning of your flight, avoid too much rummaging around in the seatback pocket if you can help it.

The same goes for pretty much all surfaces on the plane (and in the airport waiting areas and bathrooms, etc.), but the seatback pockets seem to be particularly troublesome areas. Some travelers immediately come and wipe down everything around their seat with an alcohol wipe, which may be going overboard a bit, but it sure can’t hurt. If that isn’t your style, try to keep your hands away from your face until you have had a chance to clean up after your flight.

By now most folks have seen the hotel sanitation exposes where the cleaning staff merely wipes out a used glass with a towel, or, even worse, sprays some kind of cleaning agent in a glass, wipes it with a dirty rag and puts it back on the counter. Germs, chemicals, leftover toothpaste; none of these are good for you. The rule of thumb here: If the glass is not wrapped in a sealed plastic bag, wash it yourself using very hot water, or simply don’t use it.

Your body needs water to do pretty much everything, and hydration only gets more important when you are tired, run down and under siege by unfamiliar germs. Dehydration not only makes you more vulnerable to invading bugs (sometimes in unexpected ways, as described in Avoiding the Airplane Cold), but also makes it harder for you to recover once infected in some way. Some of the other tips here are open to interpretation and may vary greatly by destination and by the individual traveler as well, but this one is lot less negotiable.

Keep in mind that drinks like alcohol and coffee don’t really count as good choices for hydration. They are not terrible — the hydration effect of coffee is a net positive, for example — but they aren’t going to get the job done well under tough conditions.

Eating and drinking like the locals is an essential and satisfying part of travel, and to skip this experience is a non-starter for a lot of travelers. But switching up your diet too drastically can topple all but the hardiest constitutions; for example, if you eat mostly fruit and vegetables at home, jumping into having barbecue or other meat three times a day might not be a great idea. Dig in on the local stuff, but maybe have a meal or two each day that is a bit more like your home fare.

As you spend more time in a place, you can often shift gradually to eating like a local around the clock, but we recommend giving your gut a couple of days to get ready.

Eating Well and Staying Active While Traveling

Spoiled or tainted food can cripple travelers for a few days, or worse; a good indicator of the freshness and edibility at any given restaurant is how many people are eating there and how many of them are locals. Establishments favored by the hordes and by the locals are less likely to have a reputation for tainted food. Even if the flora differs a bit from that at home, the fact that heaps of folks are eating the food is almost always a good sign (and high turnover means the food is probably fresher too).

This is an old traveler’s standby; when in doubt, eat only food that is either boiled or peeled. Germs will be killed off pretty much universally by boiling, and germs can’t get into food that has a peelable skin in most cases.

turkish coffee

Jet lag, the availability of great local coffee and a bit of extra leisure time to enjoy a refill can tempt travelers into noticeably upping their coffee intake. Your belly might not agree with this tactic; big increases in your daily caffeine intake can cause you some really uncomfortable hours just when you don’t want them. Keep your caffeine consumption within range of your normal levels at home to avoid problems.

Tips for Fighting Jet Lag

Conversely, if you have a fairly regular caffeine habit, you will want to figure out a way to slake your appetite for it during your trip. Anyone who has tried to go cold turkey on caffeine understands how miserable the withdrawal can be; it can also last from a couple of days to a week and a half, the full length of many trips.

Along with hydration, sleep is your most effective weapon against becoming ill or fighting it off once you are already infected; in fact, sleep and hydration together are your best tools both for prevention and recovery from illness on the road. Don’t shortchange yourself on shuteye.

If you have go-to medications when you get ill — or, even more critically, have prescription medications you need — you will want to bring them on your trip so you have the right medication at the right time. When traveling abroad, buying something even as simple as DayQuil can be difficult, as language barriers, availability and even different formulas in different parts of the world can make it tricky to know exactly what you’re buying. A lot of folks have remedies that just seem to work best for them, and if this is the case, bring them from home.

Traveling While Sick: Should You Do It?

I am not a fan of constantly pouring hand sanitizers every time your hand touches something new, but while overseas there are different bugs all around you, so this can help. I recommend you pick and choose when to use these — on airplanes, in questionable restrooms, after your kids go in a McDonald’s playground, that kind of thing — and otherwise don’t worry about it all the time. You don’t need your hands to be as clean as an operating room — just clean enough not to wreck your trip.

Most cases of traveler’s tummy are caused by strong or unfamiliar bacteria, and the cure for a bacterial infection is to take an antibiotic. You might think to let your body fight off the bacteria for a while, and only if you don’t recover quickly to go see a doctor, but it may be better to get to a doctor more quickly so you don’t give the bacteria time to thrive.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic before your trip for use in case you get traveler’s stomach; the choice of antibiotic differs by destination, so check with your doctor directly on this one.

Any number of discomforting conditions can be caused by too much sun, and it doesn’t take that much exposure to bring on symptoms that can range from itchy skin to fairly serious stomach problems, all potential symptoms of sunstroke or excessive sun exposure. Pack a serious sunblock and a wide-brimmed hat, and you are set.

There is a fantastic lake near my home, and the temptation to swim in it would be quite high — if I didn’t know what was in there. The water is beautiful, giving no hint of the heavy metals, goose bacteria and annual algae blooms that abound in the water. There’s a reason you don’t ever see anyone swimming in that lake.

The presence of people in the water isn’t necessarily proof that the water quality is acceptable; there are lots of locations where locals go swimming (and catch fish and the like) even though health officials advise against it. Before diving in, look around for signs, pipes emptying into the water, scum on the surface and other common-sense indicators that the water isn’t safe for swimming.

The World’s Coolest Lakes

Before you travel, check the CDC and State Department websites to find out if any specific vaccinations are recommended in the regions to which you’re traveling. If so, make an appointment to get them done well before your trip.

This is easy as can be these days; check out the CDC’s destination list for heaps of information by country.

While you can’t safeguard against every possible malady, following all of the above recommendations will significantly reduce the likelihood of getting sick while traveling. If you have any tips we missed, please add them in the comments.

Go Anyway,

Ed Hewitt

Features Editor

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10 Fun Family Activities in Orange County, CA

10 Fun Family Activities in Orange County, CA

Author: Jill Weinlein (More Trip Reviews by Jill Weinlein)
Date of Trip: April 2017

During my daughter’s Spring Break, we decided to explore Orange County in Southern California, instead of flying to an exotic locale.

First I reserved a two night stay at the centrally located Hotel Irvine. It’s near the beach, Disneyland, three major shopping malls for some retail therapy, and a large theatre. Since we live in Los Angeles, we drove one hour to Irvine and passed the John Wayne Airport. It’s the closest airport for those flying into Orange County.

12th floor lounge at hotel irvine

Checking in, my daughter enjoyed the jars filled with retro-candy offered to guests as a sweet welcome treat. The reservationist gave us two cards to a room on the top floor, with exclusive 12th floor lounge privileges. The Club 12 is a 2,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor lounge, offering a hot and cold breakfast daily from 6 to 10 a.m. In the evening, after a day of sightseeing, the lounge offers hot and cold appetizers, wine, beer, soda and desserts from 5 to 8 p.m. There is an outdoor seating area, and an interior with couches, large flat screen television, tables, computer work station, and a library of books and magazines. We learned we could check out here on our last day, instead of waiting in line to check out in the downstairs lobby.

My daughter and I walked into our room #1416 and noticed two double beds in city views. Our room offered calming colors of white, oatmeal and modern plush carpet. There was a work station for my computer, flat screen television, wi-fi, safe and small refrigerator. For three days we enjoyed 10 fun So Cal mother-daughter activities. Here are our favorites –

1. THEATRE – For a theatre experience, I bought tickets at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to see the Broadway’s Touring Company of Finding Neverland. Located 15 minutes from the hotel, the theatre offers some of the best Broadway-type shows. Hamiliton will be coming here soon.

irvine spectrum ferris wheel and hotel irvine bike

2. SHOPPING – Getting in our car, we first drove a few miles to the Irvine Spectrum Shopping Center. The focal point of the center is a giant ferris wheel with the names of cities in Spain. The custom hand crafted ferris wheel is 108-ft. tall, and the third fixed ferris wheel in Southern California, following the wheels at Santa Monica Pier and at Disney’s California Adventure. The operator told us the center was designed to resemble the architecture of Alhambra in Granada, Spain, with courtyards displaying fountains; colorful overlays of tile mosaics and elaborate carvings. We took a 7 minute ride in the circular pods to get the best views of the city. There is also a carousel and small children’s train that drives freely around the center. We were familiar with many of the stores in this shopping center – Urban Outfitters, Brandy Melville, Old Navy and Nordstrom, however the Hello Kitty Cafe was unique. Other shopping destinations nearby include the South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island offering more than 200 stores each. Both have been premier retail and entertainment centers for over 50 years. We found some great deals at Nordstrom Rack near the South Coast Plaza.

3. BIKING – We woke up early one morning and checked out a complimentary bicycle from a staff member at the front desk. She offered a lock, helmet and bike trail map. We took the multi-speed cruisers out for a spin along the San Diego Creek Trail from Hotel Irvine to Newport Beach. We rode on nicely paved paths, away from cars, and along wetlands parallel to University Drive with University of California Irvine on the opposite side. After returning our bikes we planned a picnic lunch.

eats restaurant at hotel irvine

4. DINING – Hotel Irvine has a Marketplace that offers a large selection of freshly handcrafted breakfast sandwiches and lunch panini sandwiches, pizza, salads, sushi and international fare. They brew Starbucks coffee and espressos; offer pressed juices and smoothies. We bought a couple paninis, chips, fruit, cookies and drinks to take for a boat ride in Newport Beach. Before our night at the Theatre, we dined at EATS Kitchen and Bar, the hotel’s ground floor restaurant. I liked their Kids Eat Free policy every night during dinner time. Kids 12 and under eat for free with a paid adult. Since my daughter is 12, I didn’t have to pay for her meal. We had steamed bao pork buns, and a pear and gorgonzola think-crust pizza with sliced cippolini onions and aged balsamic vinegar, while sharing two Market fresh salads.

5. BOATING – Down in Newport Beach we rented a Duffy electric boat from the California Recreation Company at the Bayside Marina Office for a two hour journey cruising around Balboa Island and Lido Island. It was actually easy to be the Captain of a Duffy electric boat. These boats are easy to steer and cruise slowly, while accommodating 10 people comfortably. Our boat had a full canopy top, with full window enclosures that we could unzip to let the fresh sea air in. There was also a CD player with iPod hookup for us to play our favorite music. We cruised by beaches and multimillion dollar mansions with luxury yachts docked next to their backyard. While cruising we enjoyed our picnic lunch. After our two hours, we returned the boat and walked across the bridge to investigate Balboa Island.

6. BALBOA ISLAND – Walking into the quaint Main Street of Balboa Island, it reminds me a little bit like Catalina Island, yet this one is a one-of-a-kind, man-made town. Visitors can walk, bike, or take the Balboa Island Ferry over. You can drive, yet parking is tough at times. Marine Avenue is filled with chic coastal shops, restaurants and bistros serving California and International flavors. What is iconic on Balboa island is the frozen banana. A frozen banana is dipped in chocolate and covered with a variety of coatings from nuts and sprinkles to cookie crumbs. There are several shops that sell this tasty treat that was created in the 1960s.

7. ROGER’S GARDEN – For over 50 years in nearby Corona del Mar there is a iconic full service nursery that is worth a visit, especially during the holidays. They have themed rooms during Halloween and Christmas filled with home furnishing, decor and accessories. There is also a gourmet food area and popular Farmhouse Cafe. Outdoors offers beautiful flowering plants, seasonal herbs and vegetables, designer fountains, pottery, outdoor furniture and accessories.

pool at hotel irvine

8. POOL TIME – The hotel offers a Backyard area filled with large games, bright orange cabanas and a heated pool, ideal for laps or relaxing swim. There are plenty of lounge chairs to sit and read a book or take a nap under the warm sun.

9. MEET UP – Some friends met us at the downstairs Red Bar during Happy Hour. Discounts are offered daily from 3 to 7 p.m., It’s a social hub filled with locals and visitors.

10. WORKOUT – At the front desk, the staff will hand out basketballs for guests to shoot some hoops at the hotel’s basketball hoops. On the second floor is a fitness center with exercise equipment, free weights and complimentary waters and towels.

Our mother-daughter trip was a success. We each selected fun activities that we both enjoyed doing together. Next time you plan a trip to Southern California, be sure to spend a few days in Orange County. It’s a destination that will please all of your senses.

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