Posted by: Kate | March 26, 2008

A Little Insight to go with the Credit Card Debt

Having been home for a bit, I’m starting to develop a little perspective on my recent travels – and I include last year’s Paris trip in the “recent” category.  (Both the Paris trip and Jamaica one are catalogued on our travel blog, go check it out!  I’m about halfway done with the Jamaica trip, so there is more to come there…)  I thought I’d share some random tidbits, mostly for my own future reference but if it helps you, yippee.

Air Travel
I find the actual getting-there process, the checking in and luggage and catching connections bit, to be quite stressful, only because there are so many uncontrollable variables working together to keep me from reaching my destination.  We had no unusual problems with security or TSA, but there was still a time-crunch and we did miss one connection in Miami on the way to Jamaica, so just a normal flying process was a lot of work.

It was helpful to have a reserved spot, a specific pocket in my bag, designated for passport and boarding pass, and nothing else.  You show both to important-looking people several times between the airport entrance and your airplane seat, and every second spent searching for it can create an engaging little waking nightmare about having lost all of your ID and being detained in a Jamaican prison cell. 

Even without the international travels, this is a helpful thing.  The next time I take my kids on an airplane, they will have those goofy little fanny packs or a good-sized pouch on a string around their necks to be able to hold their own boarding pass through security and at the gate; most of the time I hold onto their paperwork, but they just get such a kick out of being trusted with it and I think it’s good practice for the days when Mom won’t be there to shove them through the weird beeping metal box toward a total stranger wearing rubber gloves.

My carryon, from now on, will include: toothbrush, hair brush, big blue ball (no, wait, that’s a different story altogether – do you know which one?), book, knitting (metal needles, especially small circular ones, slide right through security without a pause; I wouldn’t risk large straights, and on international flights I usually choose wooden double-points just to err on the side of caution), cameras and laptop (which needs to be taken out and run through the xray machine on its own, so keep it easily removable), and a complete, lightweight change of clothes.  I did not have the change of clothes or toothbrush when we landed in Jamaica, and it took a day and a half for our luggage to catch up to us.  I did not carry chargers/cords for any electronics in carryon, because it can cause a slowdown at security and it’s just extra bulk to maneuver on the plane.  You can either carry a separate bag with the typical purse stuff (wallet, cell phone) or find pockets in the carryon for it. 

Choosing an airline: I love, love JetBlue, and when they fly where I’m going I will use them from now on.  Though I won’t be able to resist checking just to compare rates, I’ve found that JetBlue’s are competitive with priceline and their service is just so incredibly much better.  The seats are cleaner and more comfortable, the little TVs they let you watch are a nice touch, and the staff seem to actually enjoy their job and coworkers.  They don’t act like you’re creating a major inconvenience when you ask for a moment of their attention.

American Airlines, on the other hand, will only ever get my business again if I am trying to escape a war and they are the only available provider.  The planes were dirty and uncomfortable, there was strictly no unnecessary free entertainment, and the free snacks were stingy while the “premium” snacks were overpriced.  And the staff attitudes were, frankly, disturbing.  At one point, Mary signalled for a stewardess (or whatever the PC term is, pardon me) to ask for a tissue.  She dragged herself over, glared at us both, and announced, “There are tissues in the bathroom.”  I was able to catch her before she escaped to say, “Sure, but she has trouble walking and was brought to the gate in a wheelchair.  Can you help us out here?”  She did, with the nastiest, most put-upon attitude I’d seen since my last visit to the DMV.  Between that and lost luggage (with, as yet, no compensation or recognition of our inconvenience), I’m done with them. 

It’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what kind of experience you want to have when you’re there.  How independent do you want to be, remembering that independence means both more adventure and individualized experiences AND less help and support?  In Paris, we stayed in our own apartment, and so our only interaction with staff was when we checked in and checked out.  There were cleaning crews that came through, but we never saw them.  We took the Metro everywhere and figured out things like maps and reservations and restaurants on our own.  In Florida, we stayed in a hotel but rented a car, so we interacted with a lot more people but still had the ability to come and go as we pleased.  We could have taken shuttles from the hotel, too, but that meant adhering to someone else’s schedule… not always easy when traveling with kids. 

In Jamaica, we stayed at an all-inclusive resort, and if we’d wanted, we could have stayed entirely on the resport the whole time, or relied on resort staff to get us to and from any off-site activities (such as parasailing and swimming with dolphins, to name a few).  This would have been a bit more expensive, and very much more insulated and sanitized an experience.  All of the resort staff is friendly and interactive, with good teeth and clean clothes and less pronounced Patois accents.

Instead, we chose to rent a car, and did some driving along the coast and across the country.  On the left.  In the dark.  Exciting stuff, at times.  It put us in contact with a much less pretty, less polished segment of society, and at moments it put us in contact with an actively dangerous segment.  Fascinating and educational and I’m so glad we did it, but it created a very different experience than we’d have had if we’d stayed on the resort the whole time.

Hey, who’d have thunk it? Culture matters! The French have taken a deliberate disinterest to an art form; there was a decided sense that we were slightly invisible most of the time, as though even the act of taking cash from us at a roadside crepes cart was a big beneath them.  They weren’t especially helpful or accommodating to Mary’s needs, with the wheelchair and giving her time and space to walk around, but then again they weren’t especially accommodating to any of us. 

The Jamaicans, on the other hand, are a much more laid-back, friendly, talkative group, as a whole.  I only met one or two people the whole time who seemed even a bit reserved.  They were very respectful of Mary’s space and needs, without being condescending or treating her like she was stupid.  “No, no, take your time, no problem… can you do this?  Can I help you?”  It was quite impressive to me, actually, just how cool they were about it all.  And with the rest of us, particularly my mother and Sarah, they were engaging and playful.  To the point that Sarah received two marriage proposals, which I’m not convinced were 100% in jest. 

In both places, we saw homelessness and poverty, but in France it was in an understated sort of way – in shadows, behind alleys, just glimpses as we went from one tourist destination to the next.  In Jamaica, it was obvious and omnipresent.  Wild dogs and goats (yay, goats!) were roaming the streets in the cities as well as the country, teeth were not in overabundant supply, and people were aggressive, yet in a pleasant way, in their efforts to request a handout or sell something (from seashells to cocaine – and that was just at the resort).  There are people there with lives I can’t begin to comprehend; I’m sure the same applies for the French, but in Jamaica I was acutely aware of just how incomprehensibly different my life is. 

And of course there’s the issue of money. Travel is expensive, no way around it. Airfare fluctuates a lot, so take a week or so to get an idea of the general range of prices and then pounce on whatever seems reasonable – and then stop checking prices once you’ve purchased them. You’ll only cause heartache that way. Trust that you got the best price you could, and move on. (As an aside, my philosophy of travel includes the idea that it is too damn easy to talk about a great trip and then let it slip away under the pile of chaos and responsibility of everyday life. If you really want to take a trip, go buy plane tickets as soon as you can. Once you have that commitment, the rest will all fall into place.)

Lodging is going to vary based on what you’ve chosen. The apartment in Paris was expensive, but then ev-er-y-thing in Paris was expensive. And we were able to save a lot of money on breakfasts (fruit and cereal, eggs, bread and butter in the apartment every morning) and the occasional dinner by having a kitchenette. The hotel in Florida provided a decent breakfast, which was included with the room, and made the day start off smoother and with a reasonable blood sugar level. The resort in Jamaica was all-inclusive, so it was much more expensive than the other two, but included as many meals a day as you wanted, plus as many drinks (alcoholic and otherwise) and snacks as you could handle. The convenience was wonderful, and I am intrigued by the idea of taking the kids to an all-inclusive sort of place sometime because there were activities and food to make everyone happy and entertained… but for a simple, isolated, sanitized family vacation, we’d stay within the US and not bother with quite as much travel to get there.

Souvenirs? I buy stuff for myself, and send postcards to my kids. Other than that, I don’t buy much for the folks back home. To me, a souvenir is meant to remember my trip, and it’s a little weird to bring back (or receive) mementos from a trip someone wasn’t on. But the on-the-street souvenirs are cheapest wherever you go, and handmade is always good.

At our apartment in France, we had a free wireless internet connection. In Jamaica, we could have paid for an Ethernet connection, but chose not to. Both places had cell phone coverage – more bars than I get in my living room, actually – but we opted not to pay the $1.99/minute international rate, so I don’t know how clear the sound would have been.

Europe uses different electrical wiring than the US, so you’ll need adapters to plug your toys in. Jamaica uses the same plugs, in both the wall and the car outlets, depending on what you need to plug in.

I think that’s just about enough, don’t you?  Just wanted to throw some of this into words before it all fades into the haze of memory.

I don’t know where our next big vacation will take us.  With a little luck, the next big project will involve weight gain and a newborn, which makes 2009 an unlikely year for big travels.  But Willem and I want to take the kids to the British Isles someone soon, maybe even next year if the timing works out, and then in 2010 or 2011, we’re planning a big trip – two weeks long, the four of us plus my mother and sisters, lots of planning – to Australia, at least to Sydney and Melbourne, and New Zealand.  How cool is that?


  1. Very good tips! The one thing about traveling where the currency is something other than the dollar is check with your credit card company about how they do the conversion. One of our cards when we lived overseas did the conversion based on the rate at the time you used your card, and another one did it based on the average rate for the day, and our account that we had based at the bank on the base did it based on the average for the month. So depending on what the dollar is doing compared to the economy where you are going it is a good thing to know which way your card/bank does it.

  2. Great discussion, Kate!
    I spend a trimester abroad in Australia in 1995! Best part of my entire college experience, by far. Lived in Melbourne on campus at the Univ. of Melbourne, traveled to Sydney and Tasmania, and then spent 2 weeks in a camper traveling both the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
    Ahhhh, to go back….

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