My Fifty-two Page U.S. Passport

The New Fifty-two Page U.S. Passport         

          Several years ago when I had to renew my passport, I debated whether to get the standard 25 page passport or the new 52 page passport, both of which were the same price.  Being a frequent traveler, my old passport was nearly full and I could definitely see the advantage of having the additional pages.  My only concern was that it might be too thick and bulky and more difficult to carry and use.  In the end, I went with the larger passport and have never been sorry.  While it is a bit thicker, it is not noticeably so and knowing that I have plenty of room for the stamps and visas that I will obtain over the next ten year period makes it well worth it.  In the near future it may be the only option, but in the meantime, if you are a regular traveler I would not hesitate to order the 52 page US Passport.

52 Page US Passport

52 Page US Passport

          The passport is actually quite beautiful with background scenes of America in lithograph style on each page, accompanied by an appropriate quote by a well-known American.  As it happened, the first time I used my new passport was on a trip to Russia and the first entry was the awesome new ‘three year’ Russian visa.  It is quite common for hotel staff to copy the information page with your photo when you check in and I had an amusing experience at one hotel, where a young lady disappeared into a back room with my passport for quite a long time.  I was beginning to get nervous, wondering what they were doing with it.  After all, only six of the 52 pages had anything on them.  I was having visions of my passport being caught up in some international intrigue when the young lady finally returned.  When she handed me my passport I could see she was holding a copy of my entire passport, including the 46 blank pages!    

Holiday Bargain-Hunting Tips

Budget Bargains

Whether you’re on a strict budget, or you fancy a ‘sensible’ holiday or perhaps you’re just trying to squeeze in your sixth break of the year, we all have different reasons for seeking cheap holidays abroad.  There are many different ways to sniff out a bargain, so here are a few top tips to help you secure that cheap-as-chips trip.

Go Late

Package holidays are famous for their late deals.  Every summer, thousands of spontaneous sun-seekers go online or waltz into a high street travel agent and grab a bargain that’s leaving within the next couple of weeks.  It’s in those last few weeks leading up to the departure date that the price of package breaks tumble, leaving eagle-eyed holidaymakers to snap up the remnants and enjoy a great holiday at a fraction of the price.

Book Early

One of the best ways to book a holiday is to book early.  It might not be as cheap as the late deal option, but you’ll have much longer to pay off the cost of your jolly and most tour operators let you pay it off in installments, too.  On top of that, you’ll get much more choice and first dibs on your number one preference of hotel, local resort and even your departure airport.  Many tour operators offer early bird incentives, too – such as free kids’ places, discount family holidays and hotel room upgrades.

Book All Inclusive

It might be more expensive at the time of booking, but if you’re planning to stick close to the hotel during your trip, upgrading to all inclusive could help you save a small fortune in resort.  You’ll get all of your meals, snacks, drinks and alcoholic beverages included and you might even get some free or discounted extras thrown in, too, such as golf course access or use of the on-site spa facilities.

Room77.com

Room77.com, A New Hotel Search Web Site

          If you’re searching for the best hotel deal on the internet, you might want to try the new Room77.com web site, which aggregates available hotel rooms from other web sites, such as Orbitz, Hotels.com, Priceline and Expedia.  This new web site for one stop hotel shopping reminds us of Kayak, our favorite site for airline tickets, which aggregates available flights from all airlines and other travel sites as well.  While we have not actually used Room77.com yet, we have played around with it on the internet and it is fast, easy to use and can sort results by a variety of preferences, including popularity, price, star rating and location.

Mobile App Coming Soon

          The website allows you to filter results by selecting features that you want, including free breakfast, parking, Wi-Fi, and airport shuttle.  Hovering over the Select button will give you the total price, including taxes, fees and service charges.  Clicking on a hotel name will take you to another page with lots of photos and a detailed description of the facility, including available amenities, nearby attractions, a map and reviews.  Room77.com recently announced that they would soon have a mobile app with mobile booking capabilities.  We would love to hear from any of our readers who have tried Room77.com.  Let us know what you think of it by writing a comment below.

First Stop, London

Or How I Saved $300 on the First Day of My Trip

          After an overnight flight on United Airlines with a stopover in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I arrived at London Heathrow the following morning at about 10:30.  I’d reserved a bed at the London Central Youth Hostel since I knew where I would be that first night and because hotels in London are notoriously expensive.  Before I could relax and begin enjoying one of my favorite gateway cities there were several housekeeping chores that had to be completed.  My first job was getting into town from the airport, then I had to find the hostel and get checked in and finally I had to find an ATM to get some Great British Pounds.  At the end of this posting I share with you some important travel tips that helped me get these tasks done quickly and got me off to a good start on my trip.  As you will see, each one came into play within the first few hours of landing at my destination city.

The Famous Balcony at Buckingham Palace

The Famous Balcony at Buckingham Palace

A ‘Walkable’ City

          Planning ahead and knowing a few travel secrets really paid off and by early afternoon I was hoofing it around London.  Although this fun and interesting place is one of the major cities of the world, it is still very ‘walkable’ for the fit traveler.  I had been to London a number of times before, but there are certain places that I never get tired of seeing, no matter how many times I’ve seen them before.  Starting from the hostel I made a circuit around the city visiting some of the world’s most famous sights, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column, the site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, No. 10 Downing Street, Hyde Park, SoHo and Piccadilly Circus.  It was especially fun to see Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace just a few weeks after William and Kate were wed.  Hopefully, I didn’t cause an international incident when I found myself in the wrong place during the changing of the guards at Whitehall!

John Gets a Little Too Close to the Guards at Whitehall!


 

New Attractions Among the Old (Some Very Old!)

          This time there were several new attractions on my list of things to see in London, like the Millennium Bridge (footbridge across the Thames), the Ferris wheel (known as the London Eye) and the Diana Memorial Fountain (honoring Princess Diana).  The footbridge and Ferris wheel seemed to be a magnet for young families and it was fun mingling with them as they enjoyed a beautiful Saturday afternoon along the Thames.  It seems that each time I visit London I discover something new.  On one trip the highlight was taking the tour of Buckingham Palace.  Another time it was visiting the Royal Mews and actually getting to see the Cinderella Coach!  This time I was struck by the beauty of Hyde Park…such a serene and pastoral setting so close to the hustle-bustle of the city.  The nearby Diana Memorial Fountain seemed to be an appropriate and fitting tribute to the Princess and she certainly would have approved of all the children frolicking through the water as it cascades down the oval, granite-lined stream bed.

Princess Diana Would Approve of the Children Playing in Her Fountain

Princess Diana Would Approve of the Children Playing in Her Fountain

Miles to Go

          I’m already looking forward to my next visit to London when, once again, I’ll enjoy seeing something old and something new.  My relaxing first day in this fabulous city just whetted my appetite for the rest of the trip still ahead of me.  I would be up early the next morning to catch the first train heading west to Bath.  Sure hope you’ll join me as I wend my way through England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland over the next three weeks.

The Millennium Bridge with St. Paul's Cathedral in Background

The Millennium Bridge with St. Paul’s Cathedral in Background

Tricks of an Experienced Traveler

1)     Join Hostelling International and take your membership card with you on every tip.  Take advantage of the great lodging they provide at locations throughout the world, especially in cities where hotels are expensive.  The London Central Youth Hostel was a modern, clean facility located in the heart of London.  I shared a room with five other travelers for $40 rather than spending hundreds of dollars to sleep for a few hours in a hotel room.

2)     Consider reserving accommodations ahead on the first and last nights of your trip when you know where you will be.  It relieves a little of the stress after a long flight at the beginning of the trip and again after a number of days on the road at the end of the trip.

3)     Get a Capital One Credit Card and use it often.  It is the only credit card that I know of that does not charge a foreign transaction fee.  I used it to purchase a metro ticket into London before I had a chance to withdraw cash from an ATM and it came in handy numerous times throughout the rest of my trip.  Don’t you love Capital One’s commercials with the Vikings and the Goat!  What’s in your wallet?

4)     Do your homework ahead of time and find out which of your ATM cards charge the lowest fees overseas.  For me it was Citibank (depends on your account) and USAA.  I checked the locations of Citibank ATMs in London before I left home and headed for one as soon as I arrived in the city.

5)     Ask questions.  The fare from Heathrow Airport to Paddington Station in London on the Express Train is nearly $30 and you still might need to buy a metro ticket from there.  For only $8 and about a 30 minute longer trip you can take the metro from Heathrow to any location in London.  The ticket agents for rail service throughout Great Britain and Ireland are extremely nice and helpful and are happy to assist you in finding the least expensive fare for any leg of your trip.

Hyde Park with the London Eye Looking on from a Distance

Hyde Park with the London Eye Looking on from a Distance

Bedbugs

Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite! 

          After hearing about how bedbugs have infested the city of New York and have now spread to other major cities of the world such as London, I have been on the lookout for the little critters wherever in the world I might be traveling.  I look for them whenever I check into lodging of any kind and am happy to report that I have never seen any signs of bedbugs anywhere I have stayed in the United States, Europe or China in the last several years.  As our regular readers know, I stay in all kinds of lodgings, including hostels, dorms, pensions, bed and breakfasts, ship staterooms and hotels, as long as they meet my standards of safety, cleanliness, location and good value. 

What Are Bedbugs? 

          Bedbugs are small parasitic insects (cimex lectularius) that feed on human blood, mostly at night.  They are reddish-brown, have six legs and at approximately ¼ inch in length or the size of a grain of rice, they are visible to the human eye.  The adult can live for almost one year without a blood meal, accounting for the difficulty in eradicating these pesty nuisances.  Bedbugs have been around for thousands of years and their recent resurgence can, in part, be attributed to increased resistance to pesticides and the increase in world travel.  Infestations have been known to occur in five star hotels, airplanes, cruise ships, buses and trains, not to mention hospitals, schools and dorms.  They hitchhike from one place to another on pets, clothing, luggage and sleeping bags.  It only takes one ‘hitchhiker’ to bring an infestation back to your own home.  Once there, they can take up residence in your beds, carpets, furniture and almost any dark place where they can hide while they wait for you to come near.  Interestingly, they are attracted by body warmth and the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we exhale and use this mechanism to locate their next meal.  

What to Look For  

          Immediately after checking into lodging, I inspect my room for signs of bedbugs, so that I could still refuse the room if any were found.  Not surprisingly, the bed is the main place to check, but is not the only area where bedbugs are inclined to hide.  They are experts at avoiding discovery, hiding in dark places like furniture and carpets, as well as behind electrical outlet plates, door and window casings and under night stands.  Using a flashlight if necessary, I pull back and inspect the sheets, blankets and mattress cover on at least two corners of the bed and directly inspect the mattress itself, particularly in the crevices.  Checking the mattress is the most important part of your inspection and the very least that you should do whenever you are checking into lodging.  Telltale signs include reddish blood stains from crushed bugs and rusty, sometimes dark spots from their excrement.  In some cases, you might even see crawling insects and in severe infestations there may be an odor of almonds or over-ripe raspberries. 

Additional Precautions 

          If you are making lodging reservations ahead of time, you might want to check the internet to see if there have been any reports of bedbugs at that location.  Google the ‘hotel name’ and ‘bedbugs’ to see if anything turns up.  An isolated report is not necessarily a deal breaker, but several reports for the same hotel might be.  Once at the hotel, after determining that there are no overt signs of bedbug infestation, it is still a good idea to take a few precautions.  Do not place your luggage on the bed or carpet!  You can place your luggage on the luggage rack provided, after carefully inspecting it, of course, and keeping it away from the wall.  Some veteran travelers recommend putting your luggage on the bathroom tile floor if there is any question.  On returning home from your trip, leave your luggage in the garage or outside the main part of your house, if possible, until you can do a careful inspection and vacuum it thoroughly.  Wash all clothes whether dirty or not before bringing them into the house.

Good Night, Sleep Tight and Don’t Worry 

          If you are bitten by bedbugs, the sites most commonly affected are the areas of the body that are exposed while sleeping, such as the face, neck and extremities.  The good news is that bedbugs are not known to transmit diseases and the rash is self-limiting and resolves without treatment.  Severe itching can be treated with topical steroids or antihistamines.  Remember that taking a few precautions to prevent bedbug infestation is far easier than eradicating an infestation, which usually requires professional exterminators.  Once again, I have never encountered bedbugs in all my travels and I would not let my distaste for these annoying critters discourage me from exploring this incredible world!          

Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera

The Cinque Terre Hike

          The Cinque Terre is one of those destinations that everyone should try to visit some time in their lives and the eight mile Cinque Terre hike is an absolute must for anyone who is fit and able to walk.  The Cinque Terre (pronounced Cheeng-Kway Tear-ray; tear as in to cut, not as in tear from the eye; and be sure to roll the r’s) means five lands and is a collection of five hillside villages located on the rugged Ligurian Coast of Italy or the Italian Riviera.  The village of Vernazza, in particular, you will immediately recognize from travel photos you have seen many times in the past.  From north to south the villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

Vernazza on the Cinque Terre

The Famous Village of Vernazza on the Cinque Terre

Start at Monterosso

          I caught the train at 8 AM in Genoa to the north and from that point on everything went like clockwork, making this one of the most enjoyable days of my trip.  We stopped at little towns all along the way picking up more people at each stop until the train was standing room only.  It was pretty obvious where everyone was heading, since most had shorts, hiking shoes and day packs.  I met people from all over the world on the short train ride and we all chatted excitedly about our plans for the day.  Some, like me, were going to get off at Monterosso, the northern most village, and hike south.  Others were going to stay on the train until they got to the southern most village of Riomaggiore and hike north.  Later that day along the trail I would pass some of these same people going the opposite way and we would all call out a cheerful greeting as we recognized one another from the train.

Monterosso, Italy on the Cinque Terre

Monterosso, Italy on the Cinque Terre

Best Hike Ever!

          The train arrived in Monterosso at 10:30 AM and I was immediately able to find a nice hotel, aptly named Hotel Cinque Terre, which I will feature in the next article on Awesome Accommodations.  By 11:30 AM I was on the trail enjoying the spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea as I hiked through the terraced hillsides of vineyards and olive orchards between each of the five villages.  The weather could not have been nicer and I was glad I had come prepared with good hiking shoes and plenty of water.  The eight mile hike took me four hours and I got back on the train at the fifth village of Riomaggiore heading back to Monterosso by 3:30 PM.  Be sure to check out the video of the Cinque Terre Hike below!

The Cinque Terre Hike, Italy

The Cinque Terre Hike, Italy

Take the Train Back

          If you only have the time or energy to do one portion of the hike, I recommend the section between Monterosso and Vernazza.  It is the most difficult stretch, but I believe the most beautiful and Vernazza is one place you would not want to miss.  The train stops near each of the five villages so even non-hikers can enjoy these quaint little towns.  The train system makes it extremely handy in that you need only do the hike in one direction and can then take the train back to your starting point.  After returning to Monterosso I enjoyed the evening exploring this beautiful area in more detail and had a nice dinner at a sidewalk café.  Looking south as the sun went down I could see the lights of the other villages I had visited earlier in the day twinkling off in the distance.

Rugged Coast on the Cinque Terre Hike

Rugged Coast on the Cinque Terre Hike

Don’t Miss This Video of the Cinque Terre Hike!


A Photo Gallery of the Cinque Terre