Wait Until That Deal Come Round

by Nancy Bestor

Last month a friend looking for travel advice told me about Travelzoo, an online site that publishes offers from thousands of travel, entertainment and local companies. They had found a package deal for a five-day trip to Barcelona for four people that included round trip air out of SFO and hotel, for under $4000. While that did sound like a good deal, I decided to do a little research myself (because I vainly often think I can do better), and came up with a significantly better deal: roundtrip from SFO and 7 nights at a charming, highly rated airbnb, all for under $3000.

I don’t share this story to brag (okay, maybe just a tiny bit), but rather to report that if you’re willing to do the legwork, package deals are rarely—in my humble opinion—offered at a better rate than if you piece a trip together on your own. Granted, their Barcelona deal was at a “five star hotel,” and the suggestion I put together for my friend was for lodging at an airbnb. But frankly, I’d choose an airbnb any day over a hotel, especially if I’m traveling with more than one person. Even if I don’t plan on doing any cooking, it is so much better to have room to move around a whole apartment or house, as opposed to a hotel room. I also feel like I am “living like a local” when I stay in a residential area as opposed to a hotel zone. And our experience is that an airbnb is almost always cheaper than a hotel. You might have to provide your own soap and shampoo, although they are often included, and you won’t get clean sheets and towels from housekeeping every day, but it’s still worth it.

I’m not suggesting Travelzoo does not have great deals. In fact, I’ve signed up to get their emails for travel offers all over the world. I like to see what is out there, and if nothing else, it will get me looking on my own to see if I can put something together for cheaper. Perhaps there are some package deals out there that are great bargains, but I’m kind of particular—some (ahem, BOB) might even call me picky. But I want to choose the lodging that is best for me, which is why I can spend way too much time looking at hotel reviews online. Plus, I’m always just a little bit suspicious. If Travelzoo can find an outstanding bargain, what else is out there? Apparently, I’m willing to surf the internet for hours and hours to find out.

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It’s A Marvelous Night for a Moondance

by Nancy Bestor

When Bob suggested that we make the trek up north last month to see the total solar eclipse, I have to admit I was feeling a little ho hum about it. Astronomy and the cosmos have never really been my thing, but they are definitely Bob’s, and because I’m always usually sometimes willing to compromise in my marriage, I agreed that we should go. We were fortunate that our daughter Sarah is currently living in Corvallis, attending Oregon State University (go Beavs!), which was directly in the zone of totality. Being the kind young woman that she is, she offered up her college house for us to stay. Summer classes were cancelled at OSU that day, and the University opened their fields for eclipse watchers to see the moon completely cover the sun. Additionally, they gave out free eclipse glasses for all (I wish we had known they would do that when we were panicking to find some glasses the week prior to the eclipse, but I digress).

We drove the 222 miles from Ashland to Corvallis late on Saturday night (the eclipse was Monday morning). We were worried about traffic, as for days and weeks leading up to the big event, we read reports that traffic was sure to be gridlocked on all roads leading to and from the zone of totality, including Interstate 5. However, the road was clear as can be on Saturday night, and we arrived in Corvallis in our usual 3 ½ hours.

The city seemed fairly quiet on Sunday. We brought our bikes in case traffic around town was too hectic for driving, but we never used them, as there was none. Monday morning dawned clear as a bell, and by 9am we were sitting on the OSU intramural fields, along with perhaps 1000 other people. As the moon began covering the sun, we donned our glasses and watched the amazing phenomenon.

When the moon covered the sun completely, it was indeed dark at 10:17am in the morning. We could see stars and planets, and the temperature cooled noticeably. It’s hard to describe how amazingly crazy and wonderful the total eclipse was. And this coming from someone who’s “not into astronomy.”

When the moon had covered the sun about halfway, many people on the fields started clapping. Sarah rolled her eyes and said “ha ha, these people are clapping.” As the moon completely covered the sun, Sarah too started clapping and said, “I’m clapping now too!!!!” Because what else could she do? It was worth every clap and oohh and ahhh, and then some.

Bob and I headed back to our car very quickly, and were on the road for Ashland by 10:40am, and thank goodness, because we avoided almost all traffic, and were home in about 4 hours. Friends who left just a little later were stuck in I-5 gridlock for hours. But I’m guessing they’d say it was worth it. I’m so glad Bob and I experienced the total solar eclipse. I should compromise more often.

Be An Actor My Son, But Be a Comical One

by Nancy Bestor

Having been to my fair share of live entertainment, I think I can safely say that show business is tough. A few instances of public speaking in college, which led to sweaty palms and even sweatier armpits, proved that I am not cut out for the stage. Because the truth is, whether you’re singing or dancing in front of a crowd, or even reciting the Gettysburg Address, you have got to have cojones, and I (both literally and figuratively) have none. Bob and I were fortunate enough to be in Christchurch, New Zealand last year during the annual World Buskers Festival. In its 24th year, the 10 day festival draws more than 200,000 attendees and boasts more than 60 acts from 13 nations that perform in tents, on outdoor stages, in downtown Christchurch venues, and on the streets. The acts range from acrobats to magic shows, and from slapstick comedy to burlesque. There are shows on just for kids (or kids at heart), as well as 21 and older shows at night inside tents. Many shows with official seating inside of tents sell out before hand.

While some of the shows we saw missed the mark, the majority were pretty darn amusing, even laugh out loud funny. One of my favorites was Victor Rubilar, Argentinian football performer and comedian. Rubilar combines soccer ball juggling and tricks with a fun comedy show. Another great act was Moira’s Wheel of Fortune, where Scottish fortune-teller Moira Mackenzie predicts your future or at least, her idea of it. Theatreview NZ calls Moira a cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Professor Trelawney. She was a hoot.

After seeing six different acts at the Festival, I’ve decided that every one of these buskers has cojones. For what I’m guessing is fairly little money, they all work incredibly hard. Sometimes they get big laughs, and sometimes they get no laughs, but they have found a way to keep on going. I couldn’t tell if their armpits were sweaty.

The majority of Buskers Festival events took place in North Hagley Park, a lovely spot on the outskirts of downtown Christchurch. Since the devastating 6.4 magnitude earthquake of 2011, Christchurch has struggled to rebuild. We were stunned to find so much of the city still in rubble, condemned, or only in the very early stages of reconstruction.

I was glad that the Buskers Festival was in town, as otherwise two full days in Christchurch would have been one day too many. We strolled through the lovely Christchurch Botanic Gardens, and visited Cathedral Junction, where restored heritage trams start their journey.

We also stopped in at the Re:Start Mall, an outdoor shopping area made from shipping containers, which were brought in as a temporary solution for retailers after the earthquake, but became so popular that they have become an internationally famous icon and Christchurch destination spot.

The main sites of Christchurch are easily walkable, and although our accommodations – Pomeroy’s on Kilmore — were on the outskirts of town, we enjoyed walking to and from downtown and seeing what the city had to offer. Pomeroy’s is mainly a pub and restaurant, housed in a beautifully restored historic building. But they also have charming “boutique accommodations” right next door to the pub: five different rooms in a guest house, with breakfast included at a nearby restaurant. Our room, the Canterbury Room, was about $120 a night.

 

Renew Your Passports Without Stress

by Nancy Bestor

Bob and I just renewed our passports. We’ll be traveling in late October, and our passports were set to expire in December. Since most countries require visitors to have at least six months remaining on their passport before it expires, we went ahead and took care of it. Here are a few things worth mentioning. For local folks, we had our passport photos taken at Advanced Photo Imaging on Tolman Creek Road in Ashland. Advanced Photo is friendly and quick, and passport photos cost $12 each. Please note, you can smile in your passport photo, but you can’t show your teeth. Huh. Also, no eyeglasses allowed.

We each filled out the simple renewal application, and sent them along with our old passports, our new passport photos, and two checks for $110 each. We opted to get passports with extra pages (for no additional charge) in the hopes that we travel so much that we’ll need more pages for more stamps.

Our new passports, which are good for ten years, arrived in about six weeks. We did get our old passports back too, but they came in separate envelopes, on another day. (Because apparently it would just be too difficult to save money on postage and send them back in the same envelope as the new passports I suppose.)

A few important things worth noting: there are many online companies who can assist (for a fee mind you) in renewing passports. Although some offer “expedited services” if you are in a big hurry, it appears to me that their other services are something any capable person can do on their own, and save the additional costs. The State Department does have expedited services available as well, if there is a life or death emergency abroad, or a passport is needed within 2-3 weeks. There are additional fees for expedited services.

My best advice is that if you have an expired or soon to be expired passport go ahead and renew it ASAP. You never know when someone is going to offer to whisk you away to Paris at a moment’s notice. And it would be a shame if you had to turn that down because your passport was expired.

 

Welcome One and All

by Nancy Bestor

One of the many pleasures of visiting Japan is the opportunity to shop in its delightful department stores and independent shops. If you time your visit to a department store upon its morning opening, you’ll be fortunate enough to experience each and every employee standing at attention at their “station,” and then welcoming you with a bow as you pass by. This lasts but a few minutes after opening, no more than five, but it is truly a fascinating cultural experience like no other.

Equally delightful, however, is shopping in a small independent store, where employees take great pride in their products and service. Whether we were buying a small inexpensive box of chocolates or a handmade scarf, we were treated like royalty, and our purchase was packaged and bagged as though it were a one-of-a-kind, million dollar diamond necklace.

Before our most recent visit to Japan, Bob and I decided we were in the market for new kitchen knives, so we did a little research to find the spot that would best suit our wants needs. Although one can buy high quality Japanese knives in many markets throughout Japan, our research told us that one of the best and least touristy spots is Shigeharu Cutlery in Kyoto. Shigeharu, which has been in business since about 1200, apparently started as a sword making shop. Today they sell just about every size and type of knife imaginable.

Shigeharu wasn’t the easiest place to find. Of course it would have helped if we could read Japanese, but alas there was no “Japanese Knives Sold Here” placard out front to lead the way. Inside the quiet store, we handled a few different knife sizes and styles, until we found the two that suited us best. Perhaps this is what Harry Potter felt like when he was choosing a wand.

English is not spoken at Shigeharu, but with pictures and pointing, we were able to determine which two knives we “needed”, how to care for them, and how much they would cost. While other Japanese knife stores may sell knives made in Japan, Shigeharu knives are made right in the shop where they are sold, by the man selling the knives himself. Our knives are carbon steel, and while they require a bit more care, they will also stay sharp longer than stainless steel knives. Carbon steel does have a propensity to rust, so to keep them in good working order it is essential to dry them very soon after washing, and of course never store them wet.

The shopkeeper also gave us a quick demonstration on sharpening our new knives, and now Bob has regular weekend sharpening sessions in our kitchen. He says he likes it.

Our two knives, plus a sharpening stone, cost $223 and before we left, our friendly shopkeeper\knife maker engraved his name into the blade of the larger knife we purchased. And of course, as we were leaving and thanking him, he bowed to us several times, as did every other retail employee everywhere we shopped.

Shigeharu Cutlery is a great option in Kyoto for Japanese knives, but if you’re not in the knife market, and are traveling to Japan, I suggest you find something else to buy, as the shopping experience really is like no other.

 

 

Staying Connected While Traveling Abroad

by Nancy Bestor

For travelers, one of the many great smartphone features is built in GPS. We use Google Maps all the time when we travel, and find it incredibly helpful for walking and driving. And best of all, we can use the GPS with very little or no data. Here’s how it works best for us. When we have wifi—usually before we leave our hotel—we load a map of where we want to go. Once we leave the hotel, our final destination will stay loaded and the GPS will continue to direct us without data (as long as our data is turned off), unless we take a wrong turn and go off the downloaded map. And, of course, that never happens. HA.

This does mean that we have to toggle our data on and off occasionally, but we’d rather turn the data on for a short time to reload new directions for the very few times we take a wrong turn, than leave it on and risk using more than our travel data plan allows. It’s amazing how much detail there is in Google Maps. Yes, at times the directions are slightly off, but they’re usually close enough that we can figure out how to get where we want to go.

On a recent trip to Japan, we bought AT&T’s international “passport” plan, for an additional $40. This gave us unlimited text messaging, $1 per minute phone calls, and 200MB of cellular data. With the free wifi that we had in every hotel, and many restaurants too, we had no problem staying under our data allowance. We rarely checked email outside of wifi and I would guess that most of the data we used was when we needed to get new directions with the Google Maps app. AT&T also offers larger international plans with more data, as well as a $10 a day plan, where if you use data, they will charge you $10 per 24-hour period, but if you don’t use it, you are not charged anything. I added the $10 a day plan when I went to Mexico earlier this year, just in case. I did not use it, as the airbnb we stayed at in Yelapa had wifi. Spotty wifi, but wifi nonetheless.

We almost never make phone calls when traveling abroad. We connect with our business via text messages and email, and connect with our family mostly via text, and sometimes with the FaceTime app. FaceTime is another great, free way to connect with home, and see with our own eyes our cute daughters’ faces while we are halfway around the world. And FYI, their faces really are cute.

 

Cleaning the World—One Bar of Soap at a Time

by Nancy Bestor

Like most of you, I try very hard to conserve & recycle. I turn off the water when I brush my teeth, I don’t leave lights on in the house if I don’t need them, and I recycle every bit of paper, glass and plastic I can. Thus I’m always a little disappointed when I’m staying in a hotel and I see tiny little bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion and soap. While I like having free personal care products just as much as the next guy, I do worry about all the plastic bottles, and whether they’re getting refilled or just tossed, never to be used again.

I have noticed some hotels have moved to wall dispensing products, which makes a great deal of sense to me. The units can be refilled, and fewer personal care products are ending up going home with hotel guests as well. I also like that most hotels don’t change bed sheets and towels every day unless guests ask them to. We don’t (well at least I certainly don’t) change my sheets or towels at home on a daily basis. So why do we need to have them changed daily at a hotel?

So I was delighted to recently read about an Orlando based company, Clean the World, that recycles little bars of partially used hotel soaps and delivers them to domestic homeless shelters and developing countries that suffer from high death rates due to acute respiratory infection and diarrheal disease. At their facilities in Orlando, Las Vegas and Hong Kong, Clean the World first cleans and sterilizes the recycled bar soap, then grinds it and reforms it into new bars of soap.

The number one hotel contributor to Clean the World, The Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, has contributed over 100,000 pounds of soap to the project.