Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Heading off on vacation: Lots to do before you go

To many people, a vacation means hopping on an airplane, flying to a destination hundreds or thousands of miles away, renting a car and staying in a hotel while visiting whatever place intrigues you.

We (this is not the royal we; it means my wife, Sue, and I) have taken such vacations to far-off places such as Israel (many times), Italy, Mexico, northern Europe, Great Britain, Florida, Nevada, Arizona and lots of other far-flung places in the U.S. Our trips differ from the norm in a couple of important ways. First, we almost never rent a car. We take public transportation: buses in Israel; trains in Italy and the rest of Europe; subways in London, Paris, Mexico City, Montreal; boats whenever possible and the like.

We take public transit for two reasons: First, you need to be nuts to drive in Israel, Italy and Mexico City and I get lost too easily in countries where signs are not exclusively in English. Let's face it, I get lost a lot in places where signs ARE exclusively in English. Second, and the biggest reason, is the what we consider the top reason to travel in the first place: to meet people.

You want to visit museums? Most major museums have virtual tours that allow you to see their treasures without the crowds and tired feet. Visiting Michelangelo's David in the Accademia gallery in Florence is breathtaking, but half the fun is talking yourself into getting a hard-to-get ticket and then being told by a sympathetic civil servant that you'd better go in the morning because there's a wildcat strike planned at the gallery for that afternoon.

We love to meet people in and from far-off places. For this past trip, we didn't fly because we were going to too many places. And since we eat only kosher food, we find it easier to bring along non-perishable food and a few dairy items in a cooler or car fridge.

That doesn't mean we don't eat hot meals. Even in places where there are no kosher restaurants, such as the Williamsburg, Va., area, we get hot meals. LaBriute self-heating meals are the answer. We have received no consideration from LaBriute (it's what Israelis say to someone who sneezes) and they don't know we're mentioning them. You buy the meals from them (www.labriutemeals.com) or in a kosher grocery. Even if you don't eat kosher, you may be too tired after a long day's drive or flight to seek a meal, so it may be just the thing.

You open the box, pour water (provided) over the heating element, put the whole thing back in the box or in a provided bag and 15 minutes later, you have a lot entre. The meal also comes with soup (heat water in your hotel room's coffeemaker) and a few cookies. Some of the varieties are pretty pedestrian, but the soy Hawaiian nuggets in sweet and sour sauce are a joy.

Now, because we eat only kosher food, we cannot recommend restaurants in the cities we have visited and I am sorry for that. It limits the usefulness of this posting. But for those who do eat kosher, we will visit some restaurants where they exist.

For flying, make it nonstop

I have said before that we flew AirTran out of Westchester County Airport near New York City and were very happy with both, except for the high parking fees at the airport. These days, I am joined by many travelers in saying I'd pay more and fly at less convenient times in order to get a nonstop flight. Our last flight, in May, was nonstop and we later learned that other flyers journeying at about the same time as we to Orlando, Fla., and who had a stop in Charlotte, N.C., got a lot more familiar with the Charlotte airport than they had intended.

Finding a place to stay

The cheapest way to stay in a far-off city is to mooch off relatives or friends. You notice, I didn't say the best way, although that could also be true. Time-shares are also popular, especially if you have the time and patience to trade. My daughter's in-laws do that and have a ball.

For us, it's hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. Being kosher, we're limited in the bed-and-breakfasts we can patronize, but we found a beauty. More about that in a couple of days.

We do all our hotel-booking on the Web. This time, happened to use Orbitz, but have used Expedia and Travelocity and find all about as good. We liked Orbitz because the default criterion in placing a hotel in front of another was best value.

Because of our food limitations, we needed rooms with refrigerators, so we couldn't use perhaps the least expensive booking service: PriceLine. We have gotten three-star hotels for $50 a night near Washington, D.C. using them. You need to remember, however, that if you put in a bid and they accept, that's a contract and you must pay for it.

We stayed at Sleep Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn and Travelodge, as well as a beautiful kosher bed and breakfast. We chose these hotels because, we thought at the time, that they best fitted our needs.
The booking services all allow you to access other travelers' opinions of the hotel you are considering. We learned that these are valuable. I would say read the positive ones with larger grains of salt than the negative ones. We didn't in one instance and, although our experience was still OK, we would probably been better off eslewhere.

We overpacked -- two carry-on wheely bags and a hanging-up bag, plus hat box, food, lots of shoes. We were able to do a laundry along the way, so we packed more unmentionables than we needed.

One of the best things we did was take along books on CD. We learned about who was the real Jack the Ripper in exhaustive detail and are still enjoying a wonderful insider's take on Venice at the time of and for a few years following the burning of La Fenice opera house.

We started out in New Haven, traveled to Rockville, Md., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and North Myrtle Beach (two separate communities not adjacent to each other), Charleston, S.C., Williamsburg, Va., and Baltimore.

So, tomorrow, off we go.

Until next time...

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