The other day I came across a quote by acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux. The author of “The Mosquito Coast” said, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”
There was a time — when I first embarked on my career as a travel writer — that I would have violently disagreed with his premise. When the dew was freshly on the rose, I loved everything about setting off on a new adventure: the planning, the anticipation, the research, even the packing and, believe it or not, the getting there.
However, after 26 years traveling the globe, I can sort of see Theroux’s point.
Don’t get me wrong; I still absolutely love the destinations. It’s everything else that must be endured (yes, that’s the right word) in order to get to those destinations.
When my editor asked me to consider an article on tips for the holiday travel season, I practically laughed in her face. Not because it’s a bad idea; it’s just that I break nearly every rule the travel experts throw out there. In fact, many of my readers could probably give me tips.
She next suggested that I just talk about how travel has changed over the more than two decades I’ve been doing this, and offer any possible nuggets of advice. So, here goes.
To research or not to research
If you are traveling this holiday season (or any other time), I’m assuming you’ve already picked your destination. This brings up the question: Just how much advance planning needs to be done to ensure that you get the most from that destination?
When I first started traveling, I was obsessive about research. I read guide books and travel articles to better plan my stay, often with mixed results. At times my research proved helpful; at other times it didn’t.
On my first visit to the British Museum, for example, I allowed myself two hours. The only problem was that at the end of those two hours, I hadn’t gotten out of the Egyptian Gallery. Needless to say, I had to readjust my schedule.
Flexibility is key to any traveler’s success. My rule of thumb, whether going back to a place I know well or making a first visit, is to do a moderate amount of research, selecting a couple of not-to-be-missed experiences.
I like to save the rest of the time for wandering and seeing what the destination has to offer beyond the guide books. I’ve made some of my greatest discoveries this way — from bookstores on Paris’ Left Bank to the gem of a restaurant I stumbled into on the Athens waterfront.
If I have a weak link when it comes to travel planning, this is it. When I took my first trip out of the country at age 18, my grandmother, a buyer for an Austin, Texas, department store, took me in hand and attempted to make a packing paragon of me.
For two hours, I watched as she placed layer after layer of tissue paper between carefully selected items of clothing, and found uses for all those interior pockets in the suitcase. At the end of those two hours, my eyes were glazed over and I was practically in a trance.
I just couldn’t be bothered. And despite what all the expert packers said, I could be ready to leave the country in half an hour. Maybe that’s because I threw in such disparate items as a bathing suit and a ski jacket, a ball gown and hiking boots, operating under the logic that at least some of them would prove useful.
Today, I’m a little more discriminating, taking into consideration climate, and whether the trip will involve hiking in New Zealand or theater-going in New York. Still, I guess when it comes to packing, my tip is you have to decide whether you’re more like my grandmother or more like me.
Half the fun is getting there
I’m not sure just who first said this, but today, the only way that statement could be remotely true is if you have your own private jet. For the rest of us, it’s about as true as it was for 19th-century passengers on a wagon train heading west.
We might not have to contend with marauding outlaws and a lack of watering holes, but we do have to deal with TSA screening, airlines that want to charge you for everything from bags to breathing the air in the cabin, and airplane seats that are designed more for department store mannequins than real people.
There’s really no need to go through a litany of complaints about airline travel today, because anyone who has flown at least once knows them by heart. Instead, I’ll offer a few suggestions.
For travelers: Two words: plastic bags. You’d think by now that everyone would know that you must place all your liquids in one, but I have yet to go through airport security when someone doesn’t hold up the line having to unpack their bag and take out all the liquids.
Also, choose appropriate travel attire. Men pretty much have to wear belts, but for women, lots of chunky jewelry, voluminous scarves and thigh-high lace-up boots not only hold up lines but necessitate that you do a striptease to get through the metal detectors.
For airline personnel: My biggest gripe involves the fee for checked baggage. Meant to be a temporary measure to provide extra revenue when fuel costs were exorbitant, the $50 round-trip fee for checked bags is something the airlines are unwilling to part with.
I understand passengers’ irritation with having to pay the fee, but I don’t understand airline staff allowing them to board the plane with “carry-on bags” the size of steamer trunks. Even less do I understand that some of us pay for our bags while those who knowingly carry on bags too large to fit in the overhead bins are then allowed to check them for free. A word of advice: this is not good customer relations.
What you take with you on the plane also varies with each passenger. I’m happy with a book and a bottle of water, while others can’t do without their neck pillow, headset, laptop, playing cards, … you name it.
If you tend to get chilly during a flight, you might want to tuck a blanket in your carry-on. Unless you’re in business class, most airlines don’t have blankets on domestic flights, and if they do, they’re the size and thickness of a handkerchief.
Likewise, you might want to consider taking a simple snack — a sandwich and chips — because food for purchase on the plane is expensive, and at the airports, even more so.
Finally, one tip I can offer Lexington flyers connecting in Atlanta: Be sure to leave at least an hour and a half between your flights. Even though it’s only a 45-minute flight between the two cities, the Atlanta-bound flights rarely leave on time from Blue Grass Airport. Often they are delayed by as much as half an hour due to congested air traffic coming into Atlanta. If you have too tight a connection, you could be in for trouble.
While getting there can be a challenge and is often none of the fun, I’m not yet ready to totally subscribe to Theroux’s theory that only in retrospect — after we are home — is travel glamorous.
So, happy holidays and happy traveling.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.