One Year To Go!

Just a little over a year from now YaYu will be going off to college, and after we have her settled Brett and I will be setting out on our Big Mystery Adventure™.

One year to go! While we’re on track financially and otherwise right now, there is still much to be done, and as we have learned from past experience time is going to fly by, not just because we are going somewhere, but because we have goals to accomplish and a deadline to meet, along with so much going on around us.

As exciting as the thought upcoming travel is, getting YaYu through her senior year, helping her get her college and scholarship applications finished and sent off in time, getting her to practices, meets and testing on time, and guiding her to the eventual soft landing of graduation next May is our main priority, and is going to keep us very involved and busy.

We also have to get through the holidays, and next year’s birthdays, which come right after Christmas. We’ve already met our savings goal for Christmas, and bought our college girls their tickets home, but whether our son and family will be joining us this year remains up in the air. Our son has said if they don’t come for Christmas, then they should be here for spring break next year. It’s always busy and crazy and expensive when the whole family is together, but we wouldn’t have it any other way!

The only “unknown” right now is if we’ll be able to renew our lease this fall. Our landlord has told Brett several times that we are welcome to stay in this house as long as we like, and so Brett’s not worried about this at all. However, our landlord is terminally ill, and depending on how that plays out things could change, so I admit to being a tiny bit nervous. We’re going to ask at the beginning of next month about renewal (our current one expires at the end of October) because if there is going to be a change we need a couple of months notice to start looking for a new place and all that entails.

During this coming year there is going to be a lot more saving to do, as well as plans to finalize, reservations to be made, clothes and other necessary items to buy, and so forth. The schedule for all of this will pick up after the first of the year, but time will be moving even faster at that point. We can’t start making actual reservations until we know where YaYu will be going to school, and when she has to be there, but we should have that information no later than the end of March next year.

At the end of all of this though Brett and I will be taking a BIG, wonderful trip. Just one year to go – I almost can’t believe it!

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To Disney or Not To Disney

The mere mention of the word “Disney” can set many travel aficionados’ teeth on edge, but I confess to being a Disney fan, and our family has made several trips over the years to the parks, and had a wonderful visit each time. I grew up approximately 45 minutes away from Disneyland in California, went for the first time just three months after it opened in 1955, and visited many, many other times with my family, with friends when I was a teenager, and with Brett and our son when he was a toddler. Brett and I have also visited Disney World with our son and the girls several times – it was often easier to find cheaper round-trip airfares to Orlando from Portland than to Los Angeles. And, Brett and I have been to Tokyo Disneyland as well, which was an interesting experience. It was Disney with many similar rides, etc. and yet it was still so different. We’ve never taken a Disney cruise, nor have we visited the Disney parks in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Paris, so I can’t (and won’t) speak to those experiences.

Admission to Disneyland plus 10 “E” tickets was only $4.50 in 1967.

I personally don’t understand all the animosity towards the Disney parks. I’ve heard many complain that a day at a Disney park is too expensive (the price for a one-day ticket currently ranges from $99 to $119 per person at Walt Disney World, depending on the time of year or day of the visit, but goes down the more days you visit), and a week’s vacation has the potential to cost several thousands of dollars. The parks’ intense focus on all things Disney, and the gift shops at the end of every ride can seem excessive and cloying. The food is expensive. It costs to park your car, etc. The biggest complaint I’ve heard though is that it’s just all so . . . fake.

What seems to often be forgotten is that the Disney parks are first and foremost amusement parks. They are amusement parks taken to the highest level, and ones where it may take more than a day to experience all that is offered, but like any other park anywhere there are rides, attractions, shops, places to eat, and so forth. Those country pavilions in Epcot are just areas offering a glimpse of a country, and not intended to substitute for and actual visit. Of course they’re fake. They’re in an amusement park.

Park visitors, especially those who try to drop in for a day’s visit, are often disappointed by the experience, starting with the expense. Especially if it’s their first visit (and it’s hot), the long lines for rides can be disconcerting or exasperating. The cost of food for a family can be exhorbitant, or there’s no seating to be had at restaurants. Many leave feeling discouraged and full of animosity toward Disney, claiming it’s a rip-off, and that they’re never returning.

What’s forgotten is the high cost of actually operating a park on the level and size of the Disney ones, the cost of paying the friendly employees, the cost of keeping the parks sparkling clean, the cost of all that electricity (did you know though that Disney World burns most of its trash to help provide much of its own power?), of paying vendors, etc. Quality costs, and if nothing else, Disney provides quality. And lots and lots of people want to have that experience.

Here are some things we learned over time to ensure that even a one-day visit to any of the parks is fun and memorable;

  • Do some research before you go!! I can’t emphasize this enough, even if you’re only planning to go for a day. There are whole guides devoted to visiting Disneyland or Disney World, and websites like AllEars.net or MouseSavers.com (among others) are full of good information and tips for how to get the most out of your visit. There’s a lot to see and do, and unless you’re planning to stay for longer than week, there’s no way to see it all, but with planning you can see and do more than you thought you could.
  • If you’re planning to visit for more than a day (and you really should, if you’re going to Walt Disney World), use a Disney-specific travel agent to arrange your stay. You can book your own visit on the Disney websites, but there’s no charge for the Disney-specific agents’ services, and they will make sure your entire vacation is special. They can help get you reservations at a Disney resort without busting your budget, get reservations at the extremely popular character meals or high-end restaurants, as well as arranging other perks. We used Small World Vacations more than once – their service was superb. I highly recommend staying on resort property if you can – there are many, many benefits that include free transportation to and from the airport, free luggage transport, free delivery of items purchased in the parks to your room, and best of all, early admission and late stays at different parks each day. You also have a convenient location to return to during the day for breaks (especially nice if you’re visiting with small children).
  • The portion sizes at the park counter-service restaurants are huge. We found that sharing three meals versus each person having their own provided more than enough food for our family of five, and saved us quite a bit of money. We always also brought in our own granola bars and bottled water to save on snacks (you’re allowed to bring in any food that does not require heating). We found that purchasing the meal plans at Disney World – available if you’re staying at a Disney hotel – also saved us quite a bit, and allowed us to eat at some places we might not have been able to enjoy otherwise (Tip: dinner on the outside patio at the British pub in Epcot was the best place to be for the evening firework show). There are healthy choices available at almost all restaurants, whether sit-down or counter service.
  • Become familiar with how fast passes work, and have a plan to get them as soon as you enter the park in the morning. If you are traveling with with teenagers or other adults, you can assign each person to a particular ride for passes, and then reconnect afterwards to get started on your day.
  • If you can’t get passes, take advantage of single rider lanes if they’re available – they move more quickly than the regular line. We used this feature as much as possible when the girls were older, but they were still almost always seated in pairs, and we always had a designated meeting spot outside for when everyone finished the ride. One time YaYu had to sit alone with another family, but agreed to go after the family promised us they would watch over her. They did, and got her safely to our meeting spot.
  • Be ready to go early in the morning, when the parks open. It takes a while for the crowds to build, but if you can be there when the parks open, and head straight toward your favorite ride(s) you’ll practically have the ride to yourself, sometimes two or three times, before the line begins to build.
  • The best Disney souvenirs are your own photos. Neither Brett nor I care for Disney-branded items, so we never really bought anything more than maybe a sweatshirt for the girls, but our solution for all the tempting gift shops was to give each child their own money at the beginning of the visit – they could spend it however they wished, on whatever they wished, but when it was gone, it was gone. They were not allowed to ask us to buy them anything. It was amazing how less tempting all those items in the shops became when they had to spend their “own” money.

None of us here at Casa Aloha has a desire to go to any of the Disney parks any more – that itch has been scratched. However, we had a more than wonderful time on each the trips we made to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, made memories that we still talk about now, and Brett and I feel the expense was well worth it, and my parents apparently did as well. If I had it to do over, I’d still take each of those vacations again – they were magical, for me when I was young, and for our own kids. My most precious Disney memory is of five year-old YaYu crying from happiness as we waited for the bus to take us to the airport to go home. She had been with our family, and home in the United States, for less than a year, and her early years in the orphanage had not allowed her to imagine that there was a place in the world that was so amazing and so much fun.

In my opinion, the key to enjoying and getting the most from any visit to a Disney park is remembering that it’s Disney, and that you’re visiting a very popular, high-end amusement park. If you can keep this in mind, and prepare yourself before you go, you won’t be disappointed, and you might be able to enjoy some of the fabulous features and special effects to be found throughout the parks. However, if you don’t like amusement parks, don’t like crowds, and haven’t prepared yourself for the expense or the experience, then you’ll probably end up very disappointed.

How do you feel about visiting the Disney Parks?

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Addicted To Travel

I love to travel. As the saying goes, “If traveling were free, you’d never see me.” But, could there be such a thing as too much travel? Could someone actually “overdose” on travel?

I was very surprised to learn the answer is yes. While not a physical addiction, travel “addiction” is real, and although it’s been called by some “the healthiest addiction,” an obsessive need to travel actually has a name: Dromomania, or “vagabond neurosis.”  Some psychologists argue that dromomania does not meet the criteria for a true addiction because it does not cause “an urge to engage in a particular behavior, denial of the harmful consequences, and failure to modify the behavior.” However, in some cases excessive travel does meet those conditions, with sufferers having an abnormal impulse to travel, being prepared to spend beyond their means, and willing to sacrifice marriages, family, jobs and financial security in a “lust for new experiences.”

According to this article in Conde Nast Traveler, the first recorded travel addict was Jean-Aldert Dadas, who left the French army in 1881, and wandered into a Bordeaux hospital after walking around Europe for more than five years. He had visited various European countries and cities, and yet when he arrived at the hospital had no memories of those places other than he had been there.

Travel addiction (or obsession) is closely intertwined these days with competitive traveling. made up of people who dedicate their lives to going, quite literally, everywhere. Known as “country collectors,” or “tickers,” these travelers collect places like others collect stamps or coins. Spending time and money, and driven by compulsion, they not only want to see the world, but keep score while they’re doing it. Blogs such as Most Traveled People, Nomad Mania, and Shea’s ISO List indicate that there are tens of thousands of people competing to be the most widely traveled.

True travel addicts/obsessives can’t stop themselves, and are willing to risk everything to go somewhere. Some of these travelers have lost spouses (one travel addict has reportedly lost six wives because of his need to keep traveling!), their homes, their fortunes, all in the quest to experience the high of seeing and experiencing someplace new, and the emotional fulfillment travel provides.

Humans have always wanted to travel, to see what lies beyond, whether that’s the next town over or what’s over the horizon. Travel has the potential to make us all smarter, happier, and more creative, but the high it provides can also become too much of a good thing for some. While travel provides a bounty of new experiences and memories, as well as an escape from the humdrum of daily life, too much of it, whether for the thrill or in an effort to be competitive, seems to create a risks. Instead of becoming closer to knowing a place, with obsessive travel one might actually grow further away, as there’s always a next destination to get to, someone else’s score to beat. In these cases, the escape becomes the desired experience, not the destination.

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Creating SMART Travel Goals

Both Brett and I have always been big fans of setting goals and then working to achieve them, whether that’s downsizing or moving to Hawai’i or saving for travel.

We create our goals using the SMART criteria, and it’s worked especially well for travel planning. The SMART acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. Long before we ever travel, Brett and I sit down, talk about what we want to do, what we can afford, and then make our travel goal the SMART way. We’ve been using this method for many years, and it’s led us to success over and over again, no matter what we want to achieve.

Here’s how we use the SMART criteria when creating a travel goal:

  • Specific: Being specific means knowing exactly what we want to do. Instead of saying We want to travel or We’d like to visit xxx, both of which are vague, we spell out exactly where we want to go, when we want to go, and who will be going. We want to visit Japan with our daughter for a week in March during her spring break is very specific while We’d like to go to Japan is not. The first example has a where, when and who will be traveling, while the second example is just an idea.
  • Measurable: This means creating a precise way to quantify our goal. A travel goal contains both time- and money-related aspects, and both require some research. Instead of We want to stay 10 days and spend less than $10,000, a measurable goal is We want to spend 10 days and nine nights. We want to pay less than $700 each for airline tickets, no more than $xxx for lodging and our total budget can be no more than $8,000 (or whatever we decide our top limit is). The top limit of our budget is the number we will be working toward, and the time aspect is making sure we can take vacation at that time or that there’s nothing else that might make it difficult to travel.
  • Achievable: The travel goal needs to be what we know we can attain and complete in a specific amount of time. Giving ourselves a goal of saving $8,000 in a year for our trip is not achievable if we know that will be impossible, or that we’ll need to raid our savings or use credit cards or borrow money (and we don’t want to do those things). A specific SMART goal would be: We need to save $8,000 in the next 12 months (~$670/month) in order to make this trip during spring break. We’ll set up a monthly savings allotment, save all our refunds and gifts, save all change and $1 bills, and find other ways to save as much as possible. If we are sure we can achieve our goal, then we go for it; otherwise, we start over or reset our parameters with what we know we can achieve.
  • Realistic: This part of the goal is tied very closely to achievable, and allows us to visualize the results of our efforts. Besides just getting to our destination and knowing where we’ll stay, we also need to think about what we can afford or will have time to do when we’re at our destination. Realistic means that while we may dream of flying first class or staying at the Four Seasons, there’s no point in doing so if it will consume all or most of our budget, and not allow us to do anything else at our destination. However, if flying first class and staying at the Four Seasons is our dream, then we’ll have to reset our original time parameters or figure out a way  to earn or save more within our original time constraints.
  • Time-bound: We make sure we have a timeline for achievement. Setting a SMART goal for travel not only requires that we set the actual date for travel that we work toward, but that we also research and set specific time-goals along the way. So, while we’ve figured out that we can save $8000 in a year to cover all our expenses, we also need to know time-sensitive issues that will arise while we’re saving. For example, We will need to have $2500 of our $8000 by such-and-such date to purchase airfare and reserve our lodging (because we don’t want to leave these until the last minute). Besides air fare and lodging, our trip may also involve several other time-related issues that arise before actually traveling, things like booking tours, or getting restaurant reservations, so those may need specific time deadlines as well. Once again, research is our friend.

Because Brett and I can’t just whip our checkbook and cover any trip whenever we feel like it, using the SMART criteria has meant we’ve been able to make most of our travel dreams a reality without using credit cards or dipping into our regular savings, or putting ourselves into debt. Setting up a SMART goal can take a little more time, but almost always ups the chances for success.

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Staying Connected At Home and On the Road

A longtime reader asked a couple of weeks ago about how our family communicates across the miles, with our son and family in Japan, and two of our three girls in different time zones on the mainland.

I hadn’t really thought about it much because other than remembering how many hours difference there are when you want to talk with someone, communication these days seems so effortless. We use a variety of ways to keep in touch, and they almost never involve phone calls. The best part though is that the ways we communicate with each other while we’re at home work just as well when we travel, even overseas. Gone are the days of prohibitive long distance fees while out of the country or even calling across the United States.

First, I have to give a big shout-out to our phone service provider, T-Mobile, and the very affordable phone plan we have with them. Everyone in the family has WiFi enabled phones with unlimited calls and texting (I have unlimited data – it came with the plan – and everyone else has 2 or 3 GB, which works for them), and it’s incredibly easy to stay in touch wherever we are in the U.S. – all we have to do is connect and we’re good to go. Plus, our plan provides free data and texting all over the world with no roaming charges, with just a few exceptions. Phone calls overseas run about 20c per minute, but since we rarely use the phone feature these days it’s an expense we can almost always avoid.

Our favorite platform for staying in touch at home and abroad is Facebook Messenger. We like it because besides messaging we can also do video and group video chats. I chat with Meiling three to four times a week, with WenYu and our son a little less frequently, and our daughter-in-law uses Messenger to send photos, videos, and other grandchildren updates. It’s also proven to be a good way to stay in touch and share information with friends (who are on Facebook). As long as we’re someplace we can connect to WiFi, Messenger is free and convenient. For safety reasons we always keep the location and notification features turned off, whenever we use our phone and for all platforms.

No matter what your favorite way is to communicate while you’re at home, here are some tips from Consumer Reports on how save with your smartphone when traveling abroad:

  • Check out your carrier’s world plans: Sprint, like T-Mobile, also grants its users free data and texting in most locations overseas. Data speeds are typically only 2G, so if you want faster service you’ll need to pay for it. AT&T and Verizon have similar plans.
  • Get a local SIM card when you arrive: You’ll have to let people know you have a different phone number while you’re in country, but having a local number will mean big savings if and when you need to make local reservations or travel plans. Be sure before you do this though that your phone will work with overseas networks. International SIM cards are available in both Europe and Asia, but cost more than a card that is country specific. Also, be sure your phone is unlocked by your carrier before you go – don’t wait until the last minute to do this either.
  • Buy a budget smartphone: You can do this when you arrive at your destination, or from Amazon before you go – they have a good selection of low-cost Android phones.
  • Turn off data and go WiFi only: This is what we did on our last visit to Japan – we linked up to the WiFi in our hotel room or at our son’s condo when we needed to be online, but we could have gone online as well for free at Starbucks and other locations around town. Many Airbnb rentals and hotels also offer pocket WiFi, either for free or a small charge. WiFi availability is something you should absolutely check up on before you go though – don’t wait until you’re at your destination only to find it doesn’t exist, or you can’t connect.

One final tip for communicating whenever and wherever you travel: be sure to back up your data before you go to either an external drive or cloud-based service. And, don’t forget your power adapters and charger!

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Postcard From: The Fukurou-no-Sato Owl Cafe

If you had told me that one day I would hold an owl on my arm, and pet and ruffle its neck feathers, I would have secretly thought you were perhaps in need of some therapy. And yet, there I was earlier this year, holding a variety of owls on my arm, petting their heads, ruffling the feathers on their necks, and absolutely loving every minute of the experience.

The owls’ faces were very expressive, and they enjoyed being stroked and petted.

Animal cafes are BIG in Japan. Whether you want to interact with cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, goats, or heaven forbid, snakes, there’s a cafe where you can do that. Some are better than others – much better – where the animals are well-cared for versus just a commodity.

The cafe we visited only allows in a few people at a time, and reservations are required. On the day of our visit to the Fukurō-no-Sato (‘owl village’) Cafe we stopped by a little before noon, but the first available opening wasn’t until 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. At some of the more popular cat cafes there can be up to a two-day wait for an opening.

We were served green tea in these cute owl cups while we learned about the owls, and got ready to enter the owl room.

The Fukurō-no-Sato Owl Cafe in Harajuku is located on the fourth floor in a building just to the side of Takeshita-dori in Harajuku, and across from Harajuku station. We paid a fee (1500¥ per person, a little less than $45 for the three of us) when we made our reservation, and then reappeared at our appointed time and were served a cup of green tea in a charming owl cup along with some crackers (other beverages and snacks were available, but cost more). While we sipped and munched an employee came and spoke to us about the owls, the different types and their temperaments, how to handle them, which ones not to touch, and especially emphasized the importance of keeping the big owls away from the smallest ones because they could be seen as prey. We had been concerned about the overall treatment of the owls before we arrived, but it became apparent as we listened that the staff loved the birds and they were very well-cared for. Interaction with humans was as limited as possible, and the owls got ‘down time.’ The cafe is located very close to the Meiji-Jingu shrine, and apparently the owls are taken out several times a week to fly and hunt inside the grounds. We have learned since that other cafes do not treat their owls as well.

This owl looked like he was daring anyone to mess with his girl YaYu .

Brett gets to know a barn owl. He initially just wanted to watch the owls, but eventually decided to hold them and enjoyed the experience.

After the presentation, we sanitized our hands and were taken into the owl room where we spent around a half hour with the birds. It was honestly pretty darn thrilling! The owls ranged in size from over two feet tall (great horned owl) to tiny ones that were only around six inches tall (the little owls were not handled). What was very surprising was how light they all were, especially the big owls, but then again they would have to be light in order to fly.

We loved the expressions on the owls’ faces!

Was it worth the expense? In my opinion, yes – it was an experience unlike any I’d ever had before and am unlikely to have again, and I learned quite a bit. Although I believe that the best place for owls is in the wild, I felt the owls were respected and well cared for.

Animal cafes have opened recently in the United States, but for the most part they remain a quintessential Japanese experience, and can be a fun and interesting addition to a Japan visit (although you will never find me in a snake cafe!). I do recommend though that research should be done before choosing a cafe, as they are not all equal.

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Take Along Some Language When You Go

One of the most useful things you can take along when you travel outside your home country is some of the language that’s spoken wherever you’re going. Knowing even a little bit of the local language can go a long way, and shows that you’ve taken the time and effort to understand the people and culture at your destination, versus requiring local residents to know and speak your language, or wait while you stumble through a phrase book.

Language learning is a subject that is near and dear to my heart: I taught English as a foreign or second language for more than 20 years (and let me say right now that if English is your native language you should thank your lucky stars. It’s an incredibly difficult language for anyone to learn). My master’s thesis topic was on learning a second language as an adult, and the many factors that can specifically affect adult learners. I know that learning a new language is not the easiest thing to do, especially if you’re older or have a busy schedule or other obligations, but it can be done if you’re motivated.

There are boundless options for language learning these days, many for free, and include a myriad of on-line, self-directed courses where you can learn at your leisure.

I will say upfront though, if you have the time, the best language learning option is a classroom course. Language is communication, and in a classroom learners have the opportunity to practice live with both their instructor and fellow students, and receive immediate feedback on comprehension, pronunciation, grammar, and so forth, things usually not available from an online course (unless paid for). Language classes geared for travel are often available through the continuing education department in local community colleges at reasonable cost. Regular language courses at local colleges and universities are also an excellent way to learn another language, but require more time commitment and have a heavier focus on grammar, with little to no immediate concentrated emphasis on the language needed for travel.

Online language courses available these days can be sorted into four categories: algorithm (i.e. Duolingo, Memrise, Babel, etc.), textbook (Lonely Planet, various online language schools), formal language courses (Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, etc.), or ‘human learning’ (Conversation Exchange, etc.). All have different records of success, and need to be evaluated for the time commitment required for some degree of proficiency; how much engagement they provide; personalization; and overall effectiveness. Also, some of these are free, but others can be quite costly.

As there are no courses for the language I’m currently studying offered here on Kaua’i, I’m using Memrise, one of algorithmic options. Duolingo is more popular, but after some investigation I found that Memrise gets higher scores for effectiveness. Also, I have found the language used in Memrise’s lessons to be more authentic and practical. I initially tried them both, but quit using Duolingo when I was asked to translate the sentence, “The butterfly likes to eat chocolate,” something that is unlikely to be actually said by anyone, ever. I study for 10 minutes every day, followed by five minutes of reflection on what I learned and reviewed. I’ve found it to be a lot of fun, and best of all, I am remembering things!

The algorithmic method can be compared to using flash cards – vocabulary, phrases and sentences (simple grammar) are presented in a variety of ways, and if answered correctly the lesson moves forward, but if a mistake is made that word/phrase/sentence starts over, or is inserted more frequently into the lessons for repetition. One thing I especially like about Memrise is that a variety of native speakers appear throughout the lessons, using a normal rate of speech, versus my having to listen only to “teacher speech,” which is much slower, and not something you’re likely to encounter in the real world. This listening practice has been invaluable. I also like that the focus of the algorithmic method is primarily on vocabulary versus grammar, at least at the beginning. Again, language is communication, and while grammar is important, in my experience it’s usually initially better to try to communicate with the words you know rather than worry about being grammatically correct. With a solid amount of vocabulary, there’s a stronger chance of being understood as well as understanding what’s being said to you even if you don’t entirely grasp the grammar.

Before you can decide which method might be best for you, whether it’s online or in a classroom, algorithmic or more formal learning, you owe it to yourself to reflect on how you learn best, whether that’s through listening or visual reinforcement or active engagement. Are you good at memorization, or do you need frequent reminders and reinforcement? How much time do you have? All of these factors come into play when learning a new language, and need to be considered when choosing a method, or combination of methods, that are a good fit and will contribute to your success in learning a new language. Also, you need to be realistic about how long it takes to learn a particular language, even the basics. French, Spanish and Italian are going to be easier and faster to learn for English speakers than German, Vietnamese, Japanese or Arabic. The Foreign Service Institute’s language difficulty list shows the time required to reach mid-level proficiency in a variety of languages (and that’s when sitting in a classroom all day!).

No matter what the language though, a little effort learning the local language before traveling can pay off in big ways, and encourage a deeper understanding of the culture, as well as provide experiences that might otherwise be missed. It’s more than worth the effort to learn a little language before you go and try it out when traveling.

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The Best Trip I Ever Took

One of the Bright Angel Lodge rim cabins at the Grand Canyon

Of all the trips I’ve taken in my life, one journey still stands out as the best ever: a family vacation to the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1964, when I was 12 years old.

The Super Chief

Instead of one of our family’s typical road trips, we instead took the Santa Fe Super Chief from Pasadena to Williams, Arizona and then changed to a local train to ride to Grand Canyon Village. We stayed at the park for five full days, in a cabin at the Bright Angel Lodge (The cabins are still there! It brought a rush of memories when I saw them last year). We hiked all over the park, together or in small groups, and went to all the ranger talks and other presentations. I saw my first elk and my first skunk, which crossed right in front of me one night as we walked back to our cabin (and scared the living daylights out of me). The highlight of the trip was the one-day ride to the bottom of the canyon and back along with my mom and older brother – an awe-inspiring and amazing (painful too – can you say saddle sore?) experience. We ate all our meals at the Bright Angel Lodge coffee shop or at another cafeteria in the park, which was heaven for me and my siblings.

Mules head down the Bright Angel trail into the canyon (mule rides no longer use this trail)

Whenever I think about that vacation, these are the things that make it stand out, and why it continues to be the most memorable and my favorite:

  • The destination was a surprise – we knew we were going on a vacation, but my Mom and Dad kept the location to themselves.
  • The train ride to the canyon and back was another surprise, and a very special treat for four kids who were used to (and sort of tired of) long road trips.
  • While our vacation was not what anyone would call “upscale,” it was very comfortable, and my parents made sure we never had to hear about meals, experiences, and even souvenirs being too expensive (which we often heard on other trips).

    The Bright Angel Lodge coffee shop in the 1960s.

  • My parents made sure we had unique experiences intrinsic to the Grand Canyon (such as the mule ride for me and my brother, and horseback riding for my younger sister and brother).
  • Unburdened from the constant need to organize us all, get us into the car and get from here to there, etc. both my mom and dad were more relaxed than on other trips. One of my favorite memories is my mom, who had studied under an expert in Southwest Indian jewelry while she was in graduate school, spending one-on-one time with me, showing me how to identify techniques and styles used by different tribes in their jewelry.

That vacation to the Grand Canyon, a place we had visited before and were to visit again, continues to influence how I plan our family’s travels now. Besides making sure the funds are in place so we can have the experiences we want (like staying at the El Tovar on our trip to the Grand Canyon last year, or taking the mule ride), I love to plan surprises and/or something unexpected during each trip, find interesting and memorable activities, and make sure Brett and I have as little “administrative duties” to do as possible so we can concentrate on family and the place we’re visiting. It’s those things that help make a trip great versus just good.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for that wonderful vacation – it’s still the best trip I’ve ever taken.

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Book Review: Your Keys Our Home: The Senior Nomads’ Incredible Airbnb Journey

Back in 2013, Seattle residents Debbie and Michael Campbell were ready to retire, but Debbie felt they had one more ‘big adventure’ left in them before they settled down. After hearing about Airbnb from their daughter they decided they could travel around Europe while staying in Airbnb rentals to keep it affordable. They sold almost all of their possessions (including their cars and beloved sailboat), rented their house, packed their bags and in July 2013 they hit the road.

Four years later, the Campbells, AKA the Senior Nomads, are still traveling. In the past four years they’ve visited more than 60 different countries, over 200 cities, and stayed in over 130 Airbnb rentals. They’ve been featured in the New York Times, the Huffington Post and other publications and interviewed on Rick Steves’ radio program. Most importantly, they’ve made friends all over the world.

Somewhere along the way they connected with the staff at Airbnb, shared their experiences, and were eventually invited to speak at the Airbnb Open in Paris in December 2015. Following that they were encouraged to write a book about their experiences, primarily for Airbnb hosts all over the world, but for others interested in a different way of traveling as well, and Your Keys Our Home: The Senior Nomads’ Incredible Airbnb Journey was the result.

The Senior Nomads in the kitchen of their Paris Airbnb rental (photo credit: The New York Times)

The book is an easy and very enjoyable read – I couldn’t put it down, and ended up reading it all in one sitting. Debbie and Michael tell about how their adventure got started; their evolution as Airbnb guests, including how they choose their Airbnb rentals and get themselves to each destination. They include lots of good advice on how to search for and nail down an Airbnb rental that will be a great fit for one’s budget and with the desired amenities, as well as tips on how to be a great host and a great guest. They describe how much they pack (not a lot – they each carry one large rolling duffel and a backpack), their rules for staying within weight regulations, and who handles what as they travel. Woven through the book are fun and interesting stories from their travels.

Debbie and Michael get ready to hit the road again (photo credit: The Huffington Post)

After four years of traveling together, the Campbell’s are still in love and still enjoying each other’s company. For now, they have no idea when they’ll stop – in 2016 they sold their house in Seattle and became true nomads.

On one level, Debbie and Michael’s wonderful little book shows how it’s possible to affordably travel the world by staying in other people’s homes as if they were your own. But, the book is also an inspiring guide for re-imagining retirement. Whether you have dreamed of paring down possessions to the essentials and getting out to see more of the world, or just finding a more affordable and interesting way to travel, Your Keys Our Home is a terrific starting point for creating your own “big adventure.”

(Debbie and Michael have been blogging about their travels from the beginning of their adventure. You can follow along and learn more at their blog, The Senior Nomads. As of this writing they are in Amman, Jordan, following visits to Beirut, and before that, several locations in Africa.)

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A Dozen Inspirational Travel Quotes

Why do we travel? Writers and thinkers, from Mark Twain to the Dalai Lama to Proust to the anonymous, have passed along some very good advice, inspiration and food for thought over the years:

Some are born to head out to the open sea and sail for distant ports, while others are content to stay and work the harbor – both are equally important. Just don’t stay tied to the dock.

Letting go of prejudices and rigid points of view and accepting that others can have equally plausible and valid ways of believing and doing things is not a burden nor a chore, but freedom.

Our own backgrounds and experiences are only a very small piece of the story.

There are memories to be made, even if you don’t need a passport to make them. Travel is the chance to try something new, to experience a different way of doing things.

A great truth for everything in life.

And, the journey to where you’re going is just as important as the destination.

There’s no such thing as minimalism when it comes to memories.

Travel without regrets. Allow yourself to experience the unexpected, to do something different, to step out of your comfort zone.

There’s no finish line for having new experiences or making memories.

Even if you go back to the same place you went the year before, you can always find something new to discover and explore.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from traveling is that my way isn’t the only valid way.

Me too.

An open mind and heart are the best things you can take along on your journey.

Which of these is your favorite? Do you have another favorite travel quote?

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