Tuesday, May 20, 2014

This Summer's Most Valuable Vacation Advice

Downtown Boston from a cruise ship balcony
Greetings from sunny Bermuda.  First off, apologies to regular readers of this blog for the late posting.  I had fully intended to schedule this post to publish before leaving on vacation, but well, let's just say that things have an amazing way of getting in the way when you're getting ready to get away.  Anyway, with Memorial Day, and thus, the traditional beginning of American summer vacation season soon to be upon us, I thought this would be an appropriate time to relay some travel advice for those planning a summer getaway.  While the title of this post may be a bit over-hyped, I do hope it proves to be useful for some of you.  To that end, I offer two simple yet effective pieces of advice...

1.  Be Prepared, and

2.  Be Flexible

Sounds like advice from Captain Obvious, but during all the time I've spent traveling, I've been amazed by the number of people I've run across that simply haven't done any preparation for an expensive vacation - or are naive enough to demand that things work exactly the same in a developing foreign country as they would here at home.  Or that allow a little hiccup to completely ruin their day and/or their vacation, while letting the "Ugly American" label show through (more on that in a few minutes).

So what exactly do I mean by being prepared and flexible?  I'll let a personal example from our drive up to Boston to catch our cruise ship tell the story.  The weather was awful while driving through West Virginia (something I had expected given the forecast from the day before), and a signboard indicated a total closure of I-79 a little south of Morgantown up ahead.  Knowing this could mean big trouble, I took the next exit, fiddled around with Google Maps to find an alternate route, and managed to find a way around.  The whole thing delayed us by 20 minutes, but I'm pretty sure the 5-mile backup we would have been stuck in otherwise would have been a lot longer than that.  Fortunately, I managed to pick up good cell service where we were, but if the phone didn't work, I also had a paper map in the car and would have been able to plot out a longer but still effective alternate.  Or we could have also used that opportunity to just wait out the delay by stopping for lunch or visiting a museum or other tourist site in the area.  Either way, it wouldn't have ruined our day - and since we had given ourselves plenty of extra time to get to Boston, it wouldn't have meant issues catching our cruise, either.  Bottom line when road tripping - plan your route, be alert for problems up ahead (ideally, have a passenger check traffic conditions on a smartphone periodically), and take a few minutes to decide how to react.  And give yourself plenty of extra time, especially if you are driving to catch a special event like a graduation or a cruise.

Similarly, if you are flying somewhere, I almost never recommend trying to arrive the same day as something really important that you can't afford to miss, such as a cruise, graduation, important seminar, etc.  In other words, fly in the day before and suck up the extra night of hotel costs (especially if you're taking a cruise - if you're already dropping thousands of dollars on a cruise, surely an extra $250 for a hotel room and a meal or two isn't going to bust the budget any more than it already is).  Even if your flight gets canceled, you still have the fallback option of flying out the next morning to get to your event in time.  I would strongly suggest, though, to keep a close eye on the weather the few days before your scheduled departure.  If it looks like a major weather maker is going to be a problem - and believe me, widespread thunderstorms, which occur at times during the summer, can quickly cripple airports like Atlanta, Chicago, or Dallas - start thinking about contingencies.  You may be better off trying to rearrange flights before the storm hits, and before hotel cancellation penalties start kicking in.  Airlines often waive change fees if severe weather is expected, as they'd much rather have you fly before or after than deal with reaccommodating you if your flight is canceled.  Even if you have to eat a change fee or a night's hotel room, it may still be worth it compared to possibly having to wait 2-3 days to catch a replacement flight, which isn't out of the ordinary during a bad storm.  And please - don't yell at the counter or phone agent.  They really can't do anything about the weather, or the fact that your flight was canceled.  And if you're polite, they just might be inclined to help you out a little by getting you seats together, finding a way to get you on that flight where you'd be #63 on the stand-by list, etc.

And one final piece of advice - when you're in a foreign country, don't expect things to proceed at the same pace as they do here at home.  You just end up looking like a jackwagon.  Case in point - we're riding the bus here in Bermuda, and at a stop, some guy starts yelling at the bus driver because she tells him he can't take a baby stroller on board unless it can fit in the storage area behind the driver's seat.  He continues to make a scene by condescendingly demonstrating how he'll make it fit to the driver while continuing to fume about how he didn't have to do this on the ride over.  The guy's wife mutters that everyone shaking their heads obviously doesn't have kids.  No, ma'am - everybody is shaking their heads because your husband is a jackwagon that epitomizes the term "Ugly American".  I've run across plenty of others that complain about slow restaurant service, or the fact that the bus is 5 minutes late, or that the floor in the hotel is a little dirty, etc.  Please don't be an Ugly American.  Relax.  You're in [insert amazing destination here].  Go with the flow. 

And with that - happy vacationing!  Stay tuned to this blog for a full series of reports over the summer detailing both our road trip to Boston and back, and our cruise to Bermuda.  You'll be glad you did!

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