Who Goes to a Place Called BANFF, Anyway?!

Although it’s been almost a year already, I’ve gotten four messages in the past week regarding October’s trip to Canada. I first heard about Banff from a customer at the kennel – she had gotten her husband a book of amazing places to visit and, low and behold, it was one of them. Neither of us had ever heard of the national park and we laughed as she reluctantly dropped off her dog & said, “Who goes to a place called BANFF, anyway?!” When they returned, she raved about it.

That was almost a decade ago and I could never get it out of my head. Though on the same continent, Banff isn’t exactly cheap to get to; direct RT flights from NYC typically go for at least $650. If you’re flexible with your dates and keep an eye on them, however, you can score AirCanada tickets to Calgary for under $350. That’s exactly what my friend Lauren and I did in the fall. In true form, we flew in just for the weekend (two full days) and rented a car to explore ourselves. We were not disappointed – Banff is seriously what road trip dreams are made of.

An abbreviated version of our itinerary is as follows:

Friday, October 5th

  • EWR -> YYC
  • Pick up car from Routes Car Rental
    • Shuttle required to get to Rental Car Centre (all companies)
    • $120
  • Stay at Banff Ptarmigan Inn
    • 337 Banff Avenue, Banff, T1L 1H8, Canada (1.5hr drive)
    • $450
  • Banff Gondola Ride at 6:10PM
    • $115

Saturday, October 6th

  • Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park
  • Lake Louise
  • Moraine Lake*
    • Hike to Consolation Lake from there
  • Icefields Parkway toward Jasper
    • Peyto Lake
  • Hot springs

Sunday, October 7th

  • YYC -> EWR

It’s worth noting that we chose early fall to see some foliage, but it was already full blown winter in Alberta. It was stunning to see a snow-covered Banff, but Moraine Lake* was already closed for the season and we froze our butts off exploring the others. In hindsight, I wish we’d gone a few weeks earlier. A friend of mine had recommended we take the gondola ride at sunset and I’m so glad we did; it was breathtaking. The entire trip ended up costing us under $1,000 each including flights, hotel, car, gondola, food, etc., and we really splurged. Banff, as funny as your name sounds, you were worth every penny.

5 Perks of Traveling Solo

It’s hard to believe I haven’t published a travel post in almost one year, especially considering the places I’ve visited in the meantime. Even crazier: the fact that I haven’t traveled solo in almost five. Sure, I’ve gone away alone to meet up with friends, but I haven’t taken a trip for the sake of traveling by myself since 2014.. Until this weekend!

As I reflect on the past two days in Budapest, I figured what better topic to write about than the perks of taking solo trips. Honestly, I’d almost forgotten how many there are! Below is the condensed version of my top five (in no particular order):

1. You can explore at your own pace. I went to the famous thermal baths this morning just after sunrise at 6AM. I was able to beat the crowds & was back in my Airbnb by 8:30. Oh, and then I napped. Had I been with friends (who, by the way, I absolutely love traveling with), odds are we would’ve gotten there at prime time and spent at least four more hours and thousands of forint on massages. I’m really not a spa person, and if traveling solo, I don’t have to be.

2. Similarly, you can eat whatever you want on your own time. This entire trip, I’ve eaten street food; I haven’t sat down at one real restaurant. When with a group, it’s not always easy finding a happy medium when it comes to meals. We’ll often eat family style, too, which means not everyone gets to try what they would’ve liked to order. On your own, you can eat whatever you want, whenever you’re hungry for it (i.e., the donuts I had for dinner tonight).

3. You can rewear clothes (& yesterday’s hairdo) without judgment. In all honesty, my friends and I do this as it is (#judgmentfreezone), but overall it’s easier if you’re by yourself. I may or may not have counted this morning’s swim as a hair wash and gotten back into yesterday’s crop top.

4. You meet more people. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve definitely met people on our group trips, but they’re usually our boat drivers or Airbnb hosts and it’s rarely anything of substance. When traveling solo, however, you’re way more approachable and even likely to branch out yourself since not confined to the bubble that is your group.

5. You’ll go more places. I constantly hear of people passing up bucket list trips because they have no one to join them. That’s the craziest excuse I’ve ever heard. When I first started my weekend trips overseas, I went alone – everyone thought I was out of my mind for traveling so far for such a short amount of time. Had I waited to find a travel partner, I may have never gone at all. *For the record, I was eventually able to convince countless friends to share my crazy, and they haven’t stopped since*

The “How” Part 3: Itineraries

After flights, I am most often asked about my itineraries, especially when trips are off the beaten path or feature unique excursions: Do I use a travel agent? What about Groupon or Expedia – do I book packages? The short answer is no, but the explanation is a bit complicated. It all starts with a flight and a map (Google Maps, in this case):

  1. Honestly, where I go is based solely on price. Some of my favorite places in the world are countries I never imagined I’d travel to. Norway, for instance, was not on my radar, but a flight deal popped up a few years ago and I grabbed it. I book the airline tickets first, then worry about the rest afterwards. If for whatever reason my preliminary research has me doubting my decision, I can always cancel; there’s no penalty if you do so within 24 hours of booking.
  2. Once my tickets are secured, the real digging begins. I find it easiest to have two tabs open simultaneously: one with a map of the country I’m traveling to and the other on TripAdvisor. Note that I specify country and not city because although I’ll only be there for a short time, it is extremely rare that I’ll stay within the city I’ve flown into (unless of course it’s Rome💙). On TripAdvisor, I’m looking for those must-see sites. On Google Maps, I’m pinning each one to see what is doable and how I’ll design my route.
  3. Narrowing down can be tough, but that’s where TripAdvisor comes in handy again. This time, however, my focus is on forums. What can I absolutely not miss in Ireland? I don’t need to kiss Blarney Stone with a thousand other tourists but I do need to sleep in a castle. What are some cool things to do in Scotland? I’m not trying to listen to bagpipes but I would be down with rock climbing along the Atlantic. Open forums are incredible resources; they allow us to ask real travelers questions and get honest, unbiased answers. They also provide tips and insights you may not otherwise come across. Websites like Lonely Planet have forums too, but I’ve found TA’s to be the best, especially when it comes to excursions.
  4. Once I figure out where I’m going, I look into the best way to get there. Nine times out of 10 I’ll end up renting a car through Expedia, but I don’t always return it to the same airport; if I’m traveling far enough away from where I begin, I’ll research quicker means of transportation to my return flight. In Norway, for example, we drove East to West across the entire country, dropped our car off in Bergen (which was our last stop), then took a short flight back to Oslo to catch our plane ride home. & yes, this was all in a weekend!
  5. Finally, I choose accommodations. I’m a huge fan of Booking.com and AirBnB. Booking offers incredible prices and options way beyond a typical hotel. AirBnB allows you to live like a local in someone else’s home. I save this part for last because it’s honestly the least important. Don’t get me wrong – we stay in awesome places, but their location is determined according to what we’re doing along the way, not the other way around. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson is famously said to have proclaimed, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

The “How” Part 2: Packing

I don’t consider myself to be an expert in much, but I can confidently say I am an expert-level packer. Frequent trips coupled with my disdain for airport lines and checked bags have forced me to become pretty creative over the years; although I travel light by most standards, I’m still an over-packer!

I’m often asked how I manage to travel overseas (and change outfits an excessive amount of times) with just a backpack. While my bag of choice is pretty big (find it here on Amazon), I’ll usually try to condense my carry-on further (Marshalls, I love you for this one). How I do it is simple: I fold my clothes so they’re as tiny as possible, then stuff them into packing cubes to maximize the small amount of space I have. When I say “stuff”, I really mean it – think a pair of Spanx so tight you fit into a dress half your normal size stuffed.

More on how (and how much) in the video above. 🙂

2017 Travel Recap

If I had to sum up 2017 in one word, it would be rollercoaster. Between job changes, weekend trips, a health scare, a bittersweet move (miss you terribly, Westmill </3), countless virtual chair travel programs, a CALA certification, and everything in between, I feel thankful yet so happy to be leaving this year behind. It’s insane to see how much change 12 short months can bring. 2018, please be gentle.

Below is a recap of my 2017 weekend getaways. Here’s to bigger dreams and more bucket list cross-offs.  ❤

January: Philippines for LIG Marian Rose Mission Trip

February: Weekend in the Veneto Region of Italy

March: Weekend in Denmark & Sweden

April: Toms River, New Jersey, perhaps my most important *trip* of the year as my April weekends were spent earning the title of Certified Assisted Living Administrator

May: Weekend on Lake Como, Italy

June: Weekend in Scotland

July: Weekend in Puglia, Italy

August: Weekend in Vittorio Veneto, Italy for my 3 year anniversary (already?!)

September: Weekend in Sicily and on the Amalfi Coast, Italy

October: Weekend in Cuba

November – December: Landed in Italy for the 30th time on my 30th birthday.

#30for30!

Cuba: It’s Easier Than You Think

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Three weeks ago, I spent what felt like countless hours watching the news, reassuring friends/family, and defending my choices. Days later, I schlepped nine hesitant travel buddies to Cuba. Despite how time-consuming and confusing planning was, everything went incredibly smoothly. The below are some tips I’d either heard beforehand or found out the hard way and wished I’d known:

  • You can’t simply travel to Cuba for fun (at least not on paper). There are 12 approved reasons you can choose from, though don’t go crazy compiling proof to back your decision up. I selected “Support for the Cuban People” and was honestly clueless as to how we could actually show support. I counted an AirBnB booking (we stayed with citizens!), had everybody bring requested supplies, and hoped for the best. I was half convinced they wouldn’t let us on the plane, but when we applied for our visas, no one asked a thing. In fact…
  • …You can save $25 by pre-paying for your visa and pick it up at the gate. We flew Delta and were able to call their main 800 number the week of our trip to pay $50 per visa using a credit card. Aside from having to provide our flight info and specify which reason we chose, the process was insanely simple. We grabbed our visas at JFK (no questions asked) and hopped on our plane, accounting for nearly half the total passengers.
  • Money can be a bit of a pain. American cards don’t work in Cuba and you can’t exchange US dollars there. Long story short, your best bet is to take out euros from your bank, then exchange those at Havana airport. There are two local currencies: the Cuban Peso, or CUP, and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), the one you’ll exchange for.
  • Your phone won’t work, either (at least not your data). You can call your service provider and explore options regarding calls, but data is essentially non-existent. While accommodations are usually a saving grace when traveling, the ones in Cuba don’t have Wi-Fi. Your only option is a pre-paid Wi-Fi card, which will allow you to log in when near a hotspot (like in most parks, for example). In all honesty, your best bet is to embrace the disconnect and go off the grid while you’re away!
  • You can’t just walk into restaurants and expect to be accommodated. Granted, we were 10 people, so it’s no surprise I needed reservations. It’s important in general, though, that you plan ahead for meals. Cuba has been flooded with tourists and while the demand’s increased, the supplies have not. This is especially true in busy areas like Havana. Call ahead of time, even if just hours prior.

I cannot stress enough how pleasantly surprised I was with Cuba. The food was excellent, the people were warm, and the process was easy (once I got my facts straight, that is). There was not one moment during which we felt unsafe or unwelcome. Plus, it was insanely cheap! If you’re on the fence, don’t hesitate: book your ticket and go.

The “How” Part 1: Flights

I recently posted a video explaining why I travel so often, and although it touched upon how I do it, I wanted to try to really describe it in detail. There are a few different methods to this madness and it’s somewhat complex (hence the verbal explanation), but if you get nothing else from this post, I want to be sure you remember that the key is to just book it. There’s a 24-hour window during which you can cancel without penalty and deals don’t last; I’ve had friends get back to me within an hour and the price was already gone.

Helpful Links:

Method 1: Pop-up sales and mistake fares

Method 2: Research

Method 3: Points

I hope this helps! Please feel free to email me with any questions. 🙂