May 312016

The Atomium, Brussels

June 1, 2016 — With the kids grown, the dog dead, and the mortgage whittled down, midlife tourists are off to exotic locations this summer. As an unsophisticated rural dweller, I’ll shares experiences from mistakes made and lessons learned. June 1 is the official start of the Rube Travel season. Middle-aged men pack Sansabelt pants, while their wives buy ridiculous pink travel hats with a chin strap.

Let’s distinguish between the experienced traveler and the ordinary tourist. Traveler friends have hiked to Machu Pichu, built homes in Tanzania, walked the Way of St. James in Spain, and hunted clownfish off Indonesia. They are the brave ones, from frequent flyer points to  expensive hiking boots and well-made backpacks.

That leaves the rest of us, with our ramshackle borrowed luggage, a tour company points card and an ordinary bucket list. I am a tourist.

More cerebral than physical, our bucket list contains the wish to view paintings in every western art museum. From the Getty to the Hermitage. And every church. And every battlefield and historical site and famous garden.

Those of us with a poor sense of direction love the comfort of a tour.   We love getting one bus with the driver taking us to the front door of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  We enjoy advancing to the front of the Vatican tour line. We love knowing where dinner is. We like having a few “free days,” but prefer to be led around like innocent sheep. (Note: if the tour company takes you to a restaurant for dinner that only serves tour companies, RUN! You’ll end up in a dingy Paris basement with dozens of drunken Aussies, wailing “Waltzing Matilda.”  And the tour restaurant food is usually lousy. The tour company we travel does this about once a visit. We find a place where locals eat.)

So, now it’s time to leave for the trip. We put in for the requisite two weeks of vacation and set Outlook to “While I’m Away.” Put the water softener on vacation, turn up the air conditioning, shut the windows, and take off for the featured tour trip of the year.

Here are my random hacks:

Put everything you think you’ll need in a suitcase.  Take half out.

After your first foreign trip, save your travel list under  “Foreign Travel List.” (We do this for visiting a cabin annually, and it makes our annual venture easier with a “Cabin Trip List.”)

Plan on how much money you’ll need.  Then double it. The exchange rate is like Vegas, usually the house wins.

Get foreign cash in advance from your nearest Federal Reserve Bank. Or you can wait until the last minute and order with a hefty fee from an online company.  Or you can wait until the exchange places in the airport (again, fees). Note the sign: Hoosiers with gaping mouth approach here.

Buy a cheap phone or a SIM card that works for the visited country. Or pay the phone company a fee. Likely you’ll forget to cancel it for a few months, and pay for it three times. I bought a Mobal phone six years ago. I take the batteries out between trips, and its still working great. We’ll test it in Iceland later this year.

Take a box of mini-pads. Even if post-menopausal and haven’t worn pads since the 4th-grade menstruation film.  Overseas flights are long, and you’ll feel fresher (and as the Kimberly-Clark  film told us in elementary school, you can now roller skate.)

And in the same neighborhood, buy over-the-counter urinary tract infection pills. How often do friends learn the European healthcare system firsthand, courtesy of a UTI?  Oh, and drink lots of (bottled) water. Especially if you are going south.  Turista isn’t an urban myth.

Seriously, take half the stuff out of your suitcase and put it back.  I’m not kidding about this. After the third time, you’ve pulled that sucker off the high-speed train; you’ll thank me. (When you have the requisite pat down and strip search at St. Pancras Station, it won’t take as long.)

Buy your husband a wallet he can fit in his front pocket. Yeah, it isn’t manly, nor is his whipping out his money clip in public. Tell him all the horror stories you’ve heard from friends about the middle-aged man whose fancy was tickled in the Straw Market in Florence. In many European countries, there are exchange kiosks in public places. If you want cash, choose a well-lighted one for obvious reasons. Avoid the risk of the rogue scanner by using a credit card for money. The ATM will charge a small fee and spit out cash in the currency of the country where you are.  When some smarmy local scans your credit card, the bank will have limits on his purchases, especially if he buys something normally out of your credit card purview, like porn or gold bullion.

Give a good gander at what’s in that giant bag of a purse. Getting the message, take half out.  Always be mindful of where your purse is, even if it is travel bag with enough metal locks to tie George Clooney to a Como, Italy bicycle rack. Carrying a heavy purse with all the common objects is foolish. Keep all your makeup except lipstick in your suitcase. Stick to the basics when away from your hotel. Use the safe in your room if you need.  Put a sticky note on the back of your door so you don’t leave something in the safe.

Screw spontaneity. While Rick Steves has heart failure somewhere, think about this. Will you visit Milan again? Buy “The Last Supper” tickets ahead of time. Don’t extend an Italian vacation and find the treasure is closed. I hear you can order practically anything on The Google these days.

St. Mark's Plaza, Venice

St. Mark’s Plaza, Venice

Lost in Translation.  We like tours because the “big” things are included. Getting lost from the madding crowd has its moments. For example, we walked about 6 km on  Venice, winding around the Rialto Bridge and minor streets to get back to our hotel.  We enjoyed a fine meal in a locals joint that seated ten. We walked home in the rain, watching waiters gather up chairs from St. Mark’s Square, and divebombing Venetian pigeons descending to pick up crumbs. We watched the glass streetlights in the plaza shimmer to a  pink glow in the rain.  In Venice, even a rainy day is magic.

Lost in Europe on a warm summer day?  Belgium is an excellent place.  Surrounded by beer and chocolate, how can things go wrong?  Learn how to use the GPS on your husband’s phone before you get hopelessly lost in Bruges. Don’t miss the bus back to Brussels. Not cool, probably okay for the spontaneous among us. Not cool for people with poor eyesight who get lost in their hometown.

Taking pictures?  One or two loved ones will watch your colorful PowerPoint from start to finish. For those of us not Ansel Adams, cell phone cameras or even your tablet do the job.  Many of us love the hunt of a good picture as much as we love to travel.  That’s well and good, but in Giverny stop and smell the spectacular pink roses.  Then take 100 pictures. If your phone or camera needs a charger or batteries, pack them and charge every night. Nothing sadder than being on the last day of your trip and missing photographs of the Trevi Fountain because you forgot extra batteries.

Don’t like art or churches or history?  Get over it. When in Rome or Madrid, do as the locals do and visit an art museum.  Learn about the history and culture of an area with an excellent museum docent. Speaking of pictures, of course, see “Mona Lisa.”  Then go out into the hallway and see two more great treasures of da Vinci, “St. John the Baptist” and “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne.”  “Mona Lisa” is famous as the most well-known of da Vinci’s 15 paintings, noted for her half-smile that attracts six million visitors a year.

Don’t miss the important historical sites; you may only visit a place once in a lifetime. The day after the coronation of King Felipe VI in Spain, we stood in the same spot in Madrid’s Palace.

Wounded knees.  Not used to walking, hiking, climbing, you’ll probably be sore. Take some OTC pain pills, bunion pads, and any other apparatus you think you need.  Because of knees that exceed 116 years in age, I carry a folding cane for overseas travel.  I don’t always use it, but I know it’s there. On a trip to Ireland, I gave it to a more wretched soul. OHSA doesn’t exist in Europe; old cobblestone streets are uneven, chipped marble steps get slippery when wet, and few handrails exist.

The Highlands, Scotland

All of these tips boil down to the Boy Scout motto: be prepared.  There’s an old saying about preparation meeting opportunity.  When you have the opportunity on your trip to be spontaneous, well, you’ll be prepared.  While that sounds like an oxymoron, you aren’t 22 and staying in hostels and buying a summer Eurail pass. If you do that, good for you. For myself,  I want a western-style bed in a decent hotel.

Oh, and one more thing, weigh your suitcase before you go unless you want to get charged extra. My brothers significant other brought whiskey bottles home from Scotland and felt the overages were worth it.  No problem, right? You packed your bag well and took half of everything out before you left.  I discovered quickly after our first trip to Europe that I didn’t need four pairs of shoes.

Bon voyage, Boomers.

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