Ultimate relaxation in the Maldives

Dreaming of the perfect lazy, romantic, upscale vacation? Look no further than the Maldives, an atoll in the Indian Ocean.

As a part of our first journey to Asia, Husband and I spent 7 languid nights lounging at the Constance Halaveli resort in The Maldives. For more about The Maldives and how to get there, my prior post “The Maldives: Getting there is Part of the Fun!”

Choosing a Resort in The Maldives

One of the most daunting parts of the planning was selecting a resort in The Maldives. There are over 160 to choose from, each its own separate island. The vast majority of these earn 4 1/2 or 5 star ratings on Tripadvisor; it’s hard to go wrong from a quality standpoint.

Considerations when choosing a resort

Here are the major things we considered, not necessarily in order:

Type of Room: Does the resort offer over-water villas, and did they include a private plunge pool? We quickly realized that we wanted to experience what differentiates The Maldives from Florida or the Caribbean, and it’s definitely those beautiful over-water villas. This eliminated about half of the resorts, as not all of the islands support this type of structure.

Location: How long is the connection from Male ? With only 7 nights, we didn’t want to spend 4+ hours each way just getting to and from Male Airport

Food and Drink: Since each resort is its own island, visitors to The Maldives will be dining only at their resort. Most resorts offer some choice between a-la-carte, Half board (breakfast and dinner included), Full board (3 meals a day included). Some are fully All Inclusive (including alcoholic beverages), while others offer drink packages, and some throw in spa credit or other perks.

Reviews: Specific, recent reviews and comments on Tripadvisor, Booking.com, etc. I think I’ve mentioned before, I tend to focus on 3 and 4 star reviews, which in my experience generally contain the highest percentage of legitimate concerns and criticisms. If a resort hasn’t had a 3 or 4 star review in over a year, well… that’s probably a good thing?!

TOTAL cost: Making a few assumptions about our eating and drinking habits, and adding in the cost of transfers and gratuities, we tried to create an ‘apples to apples’ total cost comparison.

Booking Options: Where can we book, and can we leverage any Amex or Chase Ultimate perks? I looked at booking on the Amex and Chase websites, TripAdvisor, Luxury Escapes, Booking.com, and the resorts’ own websites. Once I had narrowed down the list, I also Googled “XYZ resort deals”.

Cancellation Policies: Although we have annual travel insurance policy to protect us in case of emergency, flexibility is still a consideration. How much upfront deposit is required? What are the cancellation timelines? Are there cancellation penalties?


Duh, I’m a banker…. I made a spreadsheet. Of course I made a spreadsheet!

Our finalists:

  • JA Manafuru
  • Hideaway Beach
  • You & Me Maldives
  • Mercure Maldives Kooddoo
  • Obu Select Sangeli
  • Raffles
  • And the winner: Constance Halaveli

I am sure that any of these choices would have been just as satisfying, and I’m also sure I missed a few possibilities.

We ended up finding a great deal for the Constance Halaveli through a UK website called Turquoise Holidays – this is why the Google searches are an important step. I’m not sure whether Turquoise Holidays has a special relationship with the Constance resorts, or is perhaps an aggregator that had rooms to sell, but the total price for our stay was about $1k less than any other booking engine, including Constance’s own website.

Constance Halaveli Resort

Constance Hotels is a small, upscale chain operating only in the Indian Ocean: the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius. I had first read about them through my good friend and fellow wonderful travel blogger, Bencard’s Bites, who wrote about her experience at a sister resort in 2014: Welcome to Paradise, it’s called Moofooshi.

Luxury with a decided foodie orientation? Sign me up!!

Travelers to Constance Halaveli are required to book a 1.5 hour seaplane ride from Male through the resort, who coordinates the flights on Trans Maldivian Airways.

View on arrival from the seaplane

On arrival, we were greeted “White Lotus” style at the pier, by smiling staff members holding up a Welcome sign. There were about 6 couples on the plane, and as we exited, our luggage was whisked away, while a Guest Relations staff member stepped forward to become each couple’s personal escort through the check-in process. Ours was Silvia, from Italy. She handed us a welcome drink as well as all of the vouchers and paperwork that came with our package, and explained the dining options, which I will review shortly. Silvia drove us via golf cart over the long wooden jetty to our Villa.

Welcome drink on arrival
Golf carts, they’re for more than just golf!

Our Villa

Silvia smiled when she saw our villa assignment, number 83 – I strongly suggest asking for this villa, as it’s situated on an angle such that the rear deck and pool are almost entirely private.

Villa #83

Although I had spent a lot of time reviewing photos and videos before arrival, we were still STUNNED by the size and beauty of our villa. Hands down, this is the nicest place I have ever stayed .

The main room, including the bed, with its gorgeous wood ceiling
The opulent bathroom with his and her closets
The private deck with loungers and an infinity plunge pool
Rear view of the villa

The villa is about 2/3 of the way down the jetty. Pros and Cons to this location: CON: it was almost half a mile just to get back to the resort. Given the intense heat, this sometimes seemed like a long walk, atlhough it was lovely in the cooler evening. Golf cart rides are always an option. PRO: The further out your villa is situated on the pier, the fewer rumbly golf carts pass your villa. More distance = more privacy. I’d choose this location again, overall.

The unbelievable WATER and sea life

What mesmerized me the most about our stay at Constance Halaveli was the abundance of sea life in the shallow waters surrounding our villa and the pier.

From our villa, a staircase descended into crystal clear blue water approximately 2 feet deep. That shallow depth extended several hundred yards, and the water teemed with a variety of fish including rays and sharks of the non-deadly variety. We could have snorkeled, but there was actually no need – we could just stand in the water and look at the fish and corals.

Periodically, a pod of jumping fish would swim rapidly by, with birds swooping and diving, trying to catch their dinner. Husband and I called it “The Show” and sat on the deck watching it in the mornings. As in, “Hey, honey, our show is on!” Who needs Netflix?

Jumping Fish and birds, aka the Daily Show ….

Ray, Ray, don’t go away
Baby shark, doo doo doo dooo

We also had several daily avian visitors as well as a large tropical carpenter bee (see: Xyocopa latices) who languidly floated from one end of our deck to the other all day long. I normally hate bees, but this one was just so….. mellow.

This is not how I normally spend my days in Delaware.


Constance Halaveli’s primary dining is at Jihaz, an open air buffet with an ever changing variety of choices. Yes, a buffet. But this buffet was a cut above. A chef prepared a variety of made to order dishes in line with the daily cuisine (Indian, Japanese, Seafood, etc.). In addition the buffet included plentiful bread choices, rice and soups, copious fresh fruits and vegetables, decadent deserts, and an ice cream bar.

Just a small part of the buffet at Jihaz

We never dined at the adjacent sushi bar (there was sushi available at the buffet), as it was only available certain hours. We tended to eat just twice a day. Sometimes breakfast, sometimes lunch, always dinner.

There is also a specialty restaurant, Jing, serving beautifully plated, seafood-heavy dishes. Jing is situated about halfway down the Jetty and right over the water. We dined here twice and found it to be a quiet, romantic experience.

cocktail hour at Jing, on the jetty
Sunset at an outdoor table at Jing. Covered indoor dining is also available

Resort amenities

The Constance Halaveli, like many Maldives resorts, is on a small island. The entire island is less than one square mile of habitable property. As a result, activities on the property are limited to the beaches, a resort pool, a tennis court, and a gym. The resort also offers various water-related activities such as a sunset cruise, kayaks, and floats.

Onsite Resort map

There is also a world-class spa, where massage rooms include a window to watch the enchanting sea life swim by below your massage table.

Hanging out in the resort’s infinity pool
Tree swing on the beach
Sunset cocktail hour
couples enjoy a sunset cruise

Candidly, if you are looking for an action-packed vacation, this is NOT your place. If you are looking to relax, rest, and recharge with nature and 5 star dining, then YES

Service and Atmosphere

Service at the Constance Halaveli was refined and utterly gracious, attentive without becoming bothersome. The staff stays on the island grounds, given the logistical challenges. They hailed from many countries, including India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Ireland and were very well trained. Several of them, including the hosts and hostesses at both restaurants and several bartenders, knew our name and villa number on sight within 24 hours, as well as our drink of choice. One thing we couldn’t get used to was often being addressed as “mamsir”, which is a Filipino term of respect.

Our room attendant spent fully 30 minutes pulling apart palms to set this up the day before our departure….

Fellow guests during our stay, who hailed primarily from Asia and the UK, were probably 75% couples and 25% families on Easter break. Of the couples, probably 75% were under 30 and on their honeymoon; the rest were middle-aged and often celebrating a milestone anniversary or birthday. Socially speaking, given this guest mix, the Constance Haleveli is not likely to be a place where you will meet a bunch of new friends or party late into the night.

Should YOU go to the Maldives and the Constance Halaveli?

YES, if:

  • You want to disconnect from the world
  • You love the ocean and nature
  • You want a quiet, romantic atmosphere
  • You are OK with a long day (or days) of travel to and from your resort. And never leaving until checkout, once you are there.
  • You want to relax and spend hours each day sunbathing, swimming, watching the fish, reading, and napping
  • You want high- quality dining that’s effortless to reach and always available

NO, if:

  • You hate buffets
  • You want an unlimited choice of restaurants and cuisines to try each day
  • You are looking for an endless list of activities to keep you busy each day
  • You like to explore a new location each day
  • You want to party or go clubbing with the locals or other guests

What to pack for the Maldives:

Don’t go crazy overpacking. It’s hot, and it’s casual. Also your luggage is limited to 25kg (20kg “checked”, which means loaded in the back of of the cabin, and 5kg hand luggage. There are no overhead bins). But don’t forget:

  • Sunscreen, and lots of it!
  • Bug Spray
  • Swimsuits and coverups
  • A type “D” (British) plug adaptor, although many resorts will have them available
  • A hat or hats
  • Sunglasses
  • Water shoes, for walking around in the water which contains sharp rocks and coral
  • T shirts and shorts for lounging around your villa or the resort duringthe day
  • For the evenings:
    • (Ladies) Light dresses and sandals for evening dining. You can bring a light sweater or stole but the dining is open air and we were never cold or over-air conditioned
    • (Gentlemen) resort-wear short sleeve shirts and light slacks or shorts
    • Leave the fancy shoes at home, you will be walking on a wooden jetty or barefoot in the sand
Romantic evening beachfront dining for 2

We absolutely loved our stay at the Constance Haleveli in the beautiful Maldives. I finished 3 books in just a week, there is that much downtime. After the noise, color, pollution, and dense population of India, the Maldvies was a tranquil respite. Given the cost and distance from home, we are likely to return only if a)we are otherwise going to be in the area, or b)we hit it big in Atlantic City. But the Maldvies will surely be a unique and highly treasured pin in my world travel map.

8 Tips for first time American travelers to India

Traveling to India is a unique experience. And while I did not even come close to covering the whole country, my recent experiences as a first time traveler may help you prepare for your own future trip to amazing India. While much of this advice is pertinent to anyone traveling to India (or on a very long trip in general), I think there are a few things specific to the experience of an American who has never traveled to India before. Hopefully you find these tips useful!

1. Prepare for the time change

No matter where you are coming from in the US, it’s a looooooong way to India. A nonstop flight will take at least 14 hours. My flights, with a layover in Amsterdam, cost me 22 hours. No matter what, you are going to ‘lose’ a day and a half or two days just to travel. (Want the good news? You get those days back when you head home!) Leave on Monday morning, and you won’t arrive to India until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, and possibly Wednesday.

In addition, many stopover flights from the US arrive in India at very odd hours. My flight landed at 12:50 am Bangalore time.

Fun fact: despite its size, all of India is on one time zone. At my time of travel, the time difference between the East Coast and India was 10.5 hours – you read that right – time in India is not on the same ‘hourly’ schedule as the rest of the world. There is a metaphor there somewhere…

I have a few recommendations to help you manage the accompanying jet lag and time confusion you will inevitably experience.

  • Memorize two three quick time conversions. For example, noon in the US (East coast) is 10:30pm in India. And 3:00pm in India is 1:30 am in the US. This way, whatever time it is, your mind won’t struggle to think about whether it’s a good time to call home or look for the newest Wordle puzzle.
  • Begin slowly transitioning your sleep hours to move closer to Indian time. In the days leading up to your trip, go to bed a little earlier each night. Get up a bit earlier each day. Even a two or three hour shift in the right direction will help.
  • Try a jet lag management app such as Timeshifter. The app not only recommended when and how to begin ‘shifting’ my sleep schedule but when to sleep on the plane, when to avoid sunglasses (to maximize light exposure), when to drink coffee, and when to take melatonin.
  • If your flight arrives in the middle of the night, arrange for a hotel room for that night. You don’t want to arrive at the hotel at 3 am and then be unable to check in until 4pm. You want your bed ready to go!

2. Don’t rent a car

I know, you’re a great driver. So am I. So is Dear Husband. We never ever make driving mistakes at home (she said facetiously). At home, though, there are these nebulous things called “The Rules of the Road”. Things like, use your mirror and use a signal before you change lanes. Follow the speed limit, more or less. No cows allowed on the highway. Following these rules helps us turn our small errors around home into near misses rather than collisions. We also more or less know our way around, and are familiar with the road signage.

None of this will be the case in India.

Perhaps the most surprising part of my trip was the traffic and roads in Bangalore, Agra, and Mysore. I didn’t even visit some of the most congested areas, such as New Delhi and Mumbai, and I can only imagine.

Lane markings? A mere suggestion. Signals? Never. Horns? Constant. Red lights and one way signs? Worth occasional consideration. Bicycles, cows, overloaded trailers, scooters with entire families on board, you name it…. they all share the road and are all going as fast as they can to get there. If they can pass you on the right, they will. If they can pass you on the left, they will. Sometimes with a friendly ‘beep beep’, sometimes not.

Simply put, it’s chaos. Let someone who is local and experienced do the driving for you, whether you hop in a Tuk Tuk, take a bus tour, or hire a driver for your entire trip. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.

3. Get professional travel medical advice

Our immune systems are conditioned to home. American water, American air quality, American insects, etc. In addition, although the COVID-19 world health emergency is officially behind us, there can still be travel restrictions and requirements. Further, I’ll take it as a given that you would probably prefer to avoid landing in an Indian hospital with a serious illness. For all of these reasons, consider professional travel medical advice.

I went to Passport Health, a nationwide chain of travel medical advisors overseen by doctors. I’m sure there are plenty of other options, so ask your own doctor first, particularly if you have any kind of medical issues.

In addition to a tetanus booster, I chose to receive a polio booster and typhoid vaccination. I was also advised that malaria is a problem in India, and chose to take an anti-malarial drug beginning a few days before my trip. I purchased strong repellent as well.

While I guess I will never know whether these steps prevented me from falling seriously ill, I know that one of the recommendations was, as Mastercard puts it, priceless. I purchased two “DiaResQ” pills. Which leads me to my next piece of advice…

4. Research and understand Indian food

Indian food is divisive in my circles. Some of my friends and family love it, some not so much. I generally enjoy it, although I am not a fan of food so spicy that I don’t even know what I’m eating. Everyone has different spice tolerance, and only you can know yours.

But, even if you love and ingest spicy Indian food regularly at home, be aware that you still have a good chance to contract what’s lovingly known as “Delhi Belly” if you are in India for any length of time.

For the majority of Americans, an Indian menu will contain a number of unfamiliar items. I’ve definitely heard of, and enjoyed, tikka masala. Tikka darbari? Not so much. Tikka angare? Nope. Before I left, I googled “Indian foods ranked by spiciness” and memorized a few of the names on the bottom of the list. I also discovered some very flavorful, rich foods such as dosa and maddur vada, which are grain based and mild.

I heeded the advice and cautiously brushed my teeth with bottled water, and avoided ice in my drinks, even at the swanky JW Marriott. I ate several traditional Indian meals during my first few days in India, but also chose more familiar foods such as eggs and pizza to balance things out. Nonetheless, I fell victim. Suffice to say, white rice became my best friend for a few days.

My best advice? Ask servers, do your research, skip street food, avoid unpurified water, …. and be prepared with your anti-diarrheal medication of choice.

5. Hire local tour guides

While a well-written guide book or recorded app can certainly give you the background and history of a given city or tourist site, choosing to self educate, particularly in India, will rob you the opportunity to really hear about the perceptions and experiences of its vast populace.

Our guides in Agra, booked through Pacific Classic Tours India, and Bangalore /Mysore booked through Hidden Gems Tours, offered great logistical advantages (planned by locals who know and understand that traffic referenced above). They took us not only to the most famous of Indian tourist sites, but to little-known ‘hidden gems’ such as the Bengaluru flower market. I highly recommend both companies.

Most importantly, however, they gave us undisturbed one-on-one time with Indian citizens who were more than happy to educate us about everything from local holidays and traditions, to insight on family life, to the political landscape and economic challenges faced by Indians. While I enjoyed learning about Indian rulers from several centuries ago, I will always treasure the new awareness I gained as a result of these conversations.

6. Absorb a little Indian culture before you go

Whether it’s a raucous Bollywood movie or a fictional book set in India, spend some time before your trip getting to know India. It’s just more fun when you know what to look for – such as the delicate henna tattoos I saw on some of the women attending an engagement party held at our hotel, or the thrumming beat of Indian music as I passed by the nightclub. India’s many customs are unique, and there is nothing like a good story to make them come to life.

I watched Oscar-winning Bollywood movie “RRR” on the plane. I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, but I learned from one of my guides that Indians don’t particularly embrace that film, seeing it as spreading stereotypes about India. A few of the books I read prior to my trip were:

  • The Henna Artist, and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, both by Alka Joshi
  • The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani
  • The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • (parts of ) a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture

Reading A Passage to India and Siddhartha back in high school does not count, although I did that too.

7. Especially for women

So I debated whether to include this section. I am not in any way looking to create a stir or criticize another culture. I also won’t even pretend to be fully educated on the treatment of women in India. I just think American women should be aware that it simply won’t be quite like home when you visit India. This is my perception, not a judgment.

I guess the best way to put it is that different countries make progress on Women’s rights at different rates. Back in the 1980s, walking to work in downtown Chicago in my ‘9 to 5’ office attire, I could expect a whistle or two from a construction worker or a guy driving a big pickup truck. It felt a bit icky, and sometimes intimidating depending on the situation. India is a little like that.

You will rarely see an Indian woman walking alone in the city – only with her male partner or with a bunch of other females. I found out the reason when I took a solo walk around Bengaluru one day. I was honestly was a little uncomfortable when some of the tuk tuk drivers tried to lure me for a ride, shopkeepers beckoned me inside for a bargain, or as I passed a staring man on a park bench. Men you have never met will not hesitate to look directly at you and get physically closer than you are likely used to.

To be clear, I never felt unsafe on my walk, which was in the middle of a busy Wednesday afternoon. But I was glad to re-enter the cool, controlled environment of the JW Marriott.

As another example of what I mean, one of Oldest’s female American colleagues, who has blond hair, mentioned that sometimes people (men, women, and children) would not only stare but just reach out and touch her hair, because it’s so unfamiliar to them. I had read before my trip that “personal space” has a very different definition in India than it does in the US. It makes sense, when you think about the incredible population density in Indian cities. It’s also very true.

GO! And take it all in

Looking back at what I have written above, I realize it may seem like a multitude of dire warnings. Traffic, food, jet lag, personal space … yes, they are all challenges. But with great challenges come great rewards, and that is especially true with traveling to India. So for my final #toptipforindia, I’ll steal from Nike and say: Just Do It.

While you are there, take time to look around you. Don’t just go to the Taj Mahal and post it on social media and spend the rest of your day scrolling. Watch local TV. Look at magazines and billboards. Eat in small local restaurants (with care, see #4 above…). Shop in the little shops and bargain and feel the silk. See the colors, hear the sounds, talk to the people. It’s beautiful, and noisy, and chaotic, and lively. It’s exotic, for an American, and you may just develop a new appreciation for the Stars and Stripes – as well as a taste for even more foreign travel.

A tough act to follow….. Time in Agra after visiting the Taj Mahal

After visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise, we continued our tour of Agra and environs with our tour guide, Mahesh from https://www.discoverydreams.com/about-us. You will be happy to know that the first thing we did was find a restroom and I was able to fully cleanse my bird-soiled hand before we continued our tour around Agra. Much better. As we exited the complex we stopped for photographs of a lovely red sandstone outer building with an arched passageway:

No, I didn’t call the arches to plan our outfits

Mahesh explained a bit more about the recent history of Agra. Just a few decades ago, the city boasted a population of 6 million whose lives were centered not around its famous monument, but around numerous local factories. Unfortunately, these factories contributed heavily to the locally polluted air, and the government determined that the beautiful marble facade of the Taj Mahal was suffering as a result. Given the value of the Taj as a tourist destination, the decision was made to relocate a number of these factories in an attempt to clear the air. This led to an anomaly for India: a declining local population. Agra is now home to about 2 million people.

Eventually, as so often happens, recognition bloomed that perhaps the relocation efforts had gone too far, and Agra was a city in decline. So, the government decided to use financial incentives to promote the various local arts to the city’s 50 million+ annual tourists: carpet making, marble carving, and jewelry made with local gems among other items. The next part of our tour included artisan demonstrations in each of these areas, along with the inevitable pushy sales pitch. Did I cave and buy something? Read on to find out….

Artisan Shopping in Agra

The showroom of Diamond Carpets (https://www.diamondcarpets.com) is located in the middle of downtown Agra. Our visit began with a quick explanation of the process of weaving wool and silk into beautiful rug creations. We were shown photos of the main carpet factory located a few miles away.

carpetweaving in process
women use their strong toes to edge the rugs

Next, we were taken to the display room, which housed hundreds of gorgeous rugs. One might say they rolled out the red blue carpet for us…

Showing us rugs for sale…. dare I ask the price of this one?

I made the crucial ‘mistake’ of asking the price, assuming it would be completely exorbitant, letting me off the hook with a quick “no, thanks that’s out of my price range”. For reference, last year on a cruise stop in Istanbul, Husband and I attended a similar carpet factory display, where the small but beautiful rug I admired could have been mine for a mere $20,000. So, that was my expectation here. I have a puppy at home, so the rugs tend to come from Wayfair and Home Goods. But… thanks to the government incentives, which included free shipping to the US, the price on the rug I liked was just a fraction of my prediction.

We negotiated the price a bit and I got another 15% or so off the original quote. Mahesh had told us to always negotiate in India! When you buy a rug, you sign the back to ensure that the one you receive is the one you chose. This lovely rug now sits in my office below my desk as I type, a wonderful memory of India. I have no regrets.

signing my new rug!

As our day continued, we also visited a marble carving exhibition and a jeweler, making a few more small purchases. Hopefully we helped the local economy.

Artisans insert gems into marble

Agra Fort

Today’s agenda included the two less famous but equally historic buildings in the Agra area: 1)Agra Fort, and 2)the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, also known as the “Baby Taj”.

Agra Fort, an enormous red sandstone complex, dates to the 14th century and once housed the members of the Mughal ruling family. At the time of the Fort’s construction, Agra was the capital of this northern region of India now known as Utter Pradesh, to be replaced by Delhi about 100 years later.

Imposing entrance to Agra Fort

Covering roughly 94 acres, Agra Fort borders the same Yamuna River as the Taj Mahal. The Fort is full of both Islamic and Indian architectural influences, as well as much of the same carved marble as seen at the Taj. In the heat of the midday March sun, it’s not difficult to imagine royal court members seeking cool shade in its many arched, open air corridors.

Inside Agra Fort
a peek at the Taj Mahal through one of the Fort’s windows
Tourists inspecting the gold infused ‘master bedroom’
The Fort’s courtyard almost looks like a University campus quad…
Touring Agra U

Baby Taj

After a quick traditional Indian buffet lunch, we wrapped up the day at the the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj due to its similar architecture: a central marble dome surrounded by four tall minarets. Given the nickname, we made the natural but erroneous assumption that this much smaller monument was inspired by its larger cousin. Nope!

I’timad-ud-Daulah was an exiled emir of Persia, and also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s favorite wife who is entombed in the Taj Mahal. Baby Taj was commissioned by one of I’timad-ud-Daulah’s daughters in 1622, almost 10 years before construction began on the Taj. Both buildings represent a period in which local architectural trends had shifted toward more white inlaid marble and less red sandstone.

Like the Taj Mahal, the grounds of the Baby Taj include symmetrical gardens criss-crossed with water courses and walkways.

Baby Taj – a much smaller tomb than its more famous neighbor, as illustrated by the humans in the doorway

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Baby Taj and its more famous cousin is lack of maintenance. The structure’s interior shows its true age like a Real Housewife without her makeup.

faded carving surrounds an interior doorway
inside the dome, imagine the vibrance long ago…
View of one of the red sandstone entrances from inside the Baby Taj

Unlike the heavily trafficked Taj Mahal, here a visitor can get close to the monument to inspect the beautiful carvings, take interior photographs, and experience the peaceful setting. Despite the damage wrought by age (and gem thieves), the authenticity of this structure shines through.

Around Agra

Our long, hot day in Agra came to an end in the late afternoon, as Mahesh transported us back to the Doubletree to relax before tomorrow’s journey back to Bangalore. Once again we reflected on the divergence between the tourist-filled, opulent royal structures surrounding this former capital city, and the lifestyle of its current inhabitants.

A typical Agra streetscape
children play as mom watches from the doorway
A family walks among the crumbling buildings
Monkeys climb the walls of an old factory

Evening in Agra, with puppets!

A review of our day in Agra wouldn’t be complete without mention of the late night entertainment. Too exhausted to explore any further, we dined at the Doubletree’s restaurant, Kebab-e-Que (https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/dining/) where a guitarist played the same 4 chords on every song. I kept hearing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which became tomorrow’s ear worm, because of course it did. We left the restaurant full of good food and wine and ready for bed, only to find the lobby decorated with candles and greens and the number “60”. Shamefully, we did not ask what this was about. Maybe the 60th anniversary of the hotel?

I honestly do not know what was going on here

The lobby festivities were highlighted by a young Sikh performer who showcased his family’s handmade animal menagerie. Waiting for us, alone, he could not contain his excitement at finally having an audience.

I bought the bright red elephant in the back ūüôā
A little culture in the Doubletree Lobby! Turn sound on

Our new friend had also set up a stage for a very unique puppet show. He invited the boys to don turbans …

Awesome headwear

If you are my age, you may remember ultra-kind Mr. Rogers and his somewhat creepy puppet show in the Neighborhood of Make Believe? This was kinda like that.

Watch out for the snake… and turn the sound on

Our time in Agra truly came to a memorable end! Once again I would like to thank Mahesh and Shakul at Pacific Classic Tours India (Trip Advisor Link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g297683-d6758183-Reviews-Pacific_Classic_Tours_India-Agra_Agra_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html) for arranging a fabulous trip to all of Agra’s highlights. In addition to checking off an ultimate bucket list destination and a Wonder of the World, we learned so much more about India’s history and culture. We were also once again surrounded by kind, friendly, colorful people who helped create the best travel memories.

The Taj Mahal. And, birds gotta do what they gotta doo doo…

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s the first thing most people think of when they imagine visiting India. Although I don’t always like to follow “can’t miss” and “must do” lists, come on… it’s the Taj Mahal!

So, as soon as I knew I was headed to India, I researched the best way to visit the iconic structure. The Taj is located in Agra, a small city in the north central part of India and almost 2000km from Bengaluru. The closest major city is New Delhi, about a 2.5 hour car ride away.

A word of advice

Many tour operators offered a “day trip” to the Taj from Bengaluru. This would have involved:

  • hotel pick up at 6 am
  • 45 minute ride to BLR airport
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight to New Delhi
  • 2.5 hour car ride to the Taj
  • An hour or so at the Taj, and maybe lunch
  • 2.5 hour car ride back to New Delhi
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight back to BLR
  • 45 minute ride back to Bangalore city

No, thank you.

Instead, I chose a trip arranged through https://www.discoverydreams.com, leaving on a Friday morning, with two nights in Agra, and returning on a Sunday. Best of all, the company (also known as Pacific Classic Tours India or PCTI) arranged the trip via a direct flight to Agra rather than New Delhi, saving a lot of time in the car. This tour is only available on certain days of the week, as the direct flight from Bengaluru to Agra only operates on a few days, and the Taj itself is closed to the public on Fridays for religious purposes.

Take your time with this place, it’s worthwhile.

journey to agra

The flight itself was uneventful but the arrival was a bit different. We flew on IndiGo, a quirky no-frills airline reminiscent of Jet Blue or Southwest in the US. Riding buses to the tarmac for a domestic flight experience at BLR provides that up close and personal experience:

That gorgeous baby had more gold jewelry than I do

Unfortunately, I have no photos of our arrival at Agra airport, because it is actually a military airport that only recently opened to commercial air traffic. NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs and armed guards greeted us. Next, we were required to take a bus to the prison-like gated entrance of the airport. Although the 1/2 mile bus ride was purported to be free, one of the armed guards wanted to collect a fee of 50 rupees (about 61 US cents). Needless to say, we riders complied.

Our tour guide for the next two days, Mahesh, was positioned at the airport entrance gate to meet us in an air conditioned vehicle. The airport was only about 10 minutes from the small city of Agra, where our package included delicious late lunch at the Salt Cafe. Then off to our hotel, the Doubletree Agra https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/

My room had a teeny tiny view of the dome of the Taj Mahal. A newly constructed elevated railway obscures the view from this side of Agra (unfortunately including the now inaptly named “Taj View Hotel” nearby). Progress and history compete as everywhere.

my first “view” of the Taj Mahal

Taj Viewpoint in the evening

After a short rest at the hotel, Mahesh picked us up again to get our first real view of the Taj. Since it was a Friday, and the mausoleum was closed, our only option was to proceed to the north side of the Yamuna river to the “Taj Viewpoint”. We dodged rickshaws, stray dogs, monkeys, children and camels on the approach to the viewpoint.

Since the monument is completely symmetrical, from either direction the view is identical. The view you are most likely familiar with looks across well-designed entrance pools and gardens; From the rear, the view crosses a nearly dry riverbed full of weeds, cows and goats grazing . The striking divergence of the opulent marble monument, the pollution-hazed sunset, the peasants with their cattle, and my own sheer wonder added to my sense of awe.

and there it is…..
and here we are!

After a half hour so of wandering, photographing, and simply gazing in speechless amazement, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow, we will visit at sunrise and learn more about the history of the Taj Mahal. But for now, driving away from the Viewpoint, I was struck by the “neighborhood” here. Just 1/4 mile from one of the world’s most famous monuments, people live with no running water, no electricity, wandering animals, and scattered trash. One of humanity’s greatest architectural and artistic accomplishments and societal failures in such close proximity. Jarring, to say the least.

Across the river from the Taj Mahal

Despite jet lag and travel weariness, I had trouble sleeping that night.

Sunrise at the Taj mahal

The next morning, we arose early to arrive at the Taj Mahal just before sunrise. The ethereal light attracted plenty of other visitors, but knowing the heat would rise later in the day, we knew this was the best time to be here. As a bonus, the photography is a bit surreal too. In some of the photos, the Taj almost looks like a painted backdrop.

crowds at the Taj gate at sunrise.
spooky look toward the hazy sunrise
that iconic view
here we are standing beside a painting of the Taj Mahal…. (jk)
fun with angles and perspective

A little brief history of the Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1631 as a mausoleum by the Mughal emperor at the time, Shah Jahan, to house the remains of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Per our tour guide, she was one of one of three wives, and bore him 13 children. Pregnant with their 14th, on a camel back ride across the country for some royal purpose or another, she became physically distressed and lost both the child and her life. Construction was completed in 1648. I’m thinking the Shah felt a little guilty… hence the huge marble structure that virtually glows in the sunlight. There are two smaller mausoleums on either side of the structure for the other two wives that seem like (and most likely were) an afterthought.

Details of the Taj Mahal:

Of course I knew the Taj Mahal was a white building, and made of marble. What I didn’t know is that each and almost every inch is full of carvings, jewels, and intricate writings that can only be seen up close. Here are a couple of photos attempting to capture that detail:

The entrance approach up close
close up showing both the colorful inset stones, gold leaf, and some of the damage inflicted by years of people and weather
another close up from outside

One of the more fascinating aspects of this detail is the red stone shown below. Holding our iPhone flashlights up to the stone created a unique glow that blushed across the entire stone. Sadly, many of the 28 types of jewels originally used in the Taj Mahal’s construction were stolen over time.

The yucky part

By now, you may be wondering about the bird doo doo referenced in my title. OK then, since you asked….

The indoor of the mausoleum houses the tombs of both Mumtaz Mahal and the Shah who created the tomb. No indoor photos are allowed. I do have this one, though, which shows my hand on the railing that keeps visitors from touching the inside walls:

I guess I really am over COVID, because I probably shouldn’t be touching that….

Inside of the Taj dome are 82 foot walls. While the structure is enclosed, the doors are tall enough that a few of the birds that surround the monument must find their way in periodically. They happily nest in the windows and carvings above. I don’t know what kind of bird blessed me, but my hand was exactly as shown on one of these railings when PLOP! a cold, nasty liquid was discharged right onto the back of my right hand. Oh, my kingdom for a tissue…..! I’ll bet there aren’t too many people who can say they have been pooped on inside the Taj Mahal. I feel soooo special. Karma for life, anyone?

bird, schmird… I’m still smiling .. check out the fun reflection in my sunglasses – thanks Mahesh!
Taj Mahal at sunrise

In my next post, more to come about the rest of our time in Agra, which included artisan demonstrations, a visit to Agra Fort and the “Baby Taj” monument, and a… puppet show. Yep, a puppet show.

Multigenerational Cruising on the Edge

I’ve been on over a dozen cruises, and have often seen large family groups cruising together, ¬†but never participated before – ¬†usually it’s just me and my husband, or me, husband and our kids. ¬†These big groups always seemed to be having a blast, ¬†and they are hard to miss because they often take up a lot of seats at the bar or pool.

In January, I finally had the opportunity to be part of “that group”. ¬† I cruised with 19 other extended family members, aged 19 – 88, ¬†on the beautiful Celebrity Edge. ¬† The ship and itinerary was chosen by the oldest of the group (“Nanny and Pop Pop”), ¬†who have limited mobility but wanted to find a way to spend time with their grandchildren that would be fun for all. ¬†We scheduled the trip just after Christmas, ¬†when several of the younger generation who attend college were on break.

Pros and Cons of Large Group Cruising:


Con: it’s really hard to get a good group photo

I’ll get to my review of the Edge in a minute, but first I wanted to outline what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of cruising for a multigenerational group:

First, the positives of large group cruising:

  • There are enough activities to interest everyone in the group
  • If the group wants to break up and enjoy different areas of the ship according to interest, they can. ¬†When I’m with Husband, sometimes I find myself alone – ¬†he likes a sunny spot by the pool, I like a quieter spot in the shade, ¬†for example- ¬†that never happened on this trip. ¬† Similarly, ¬†if one of your party is tired and wants to rest in the room or sleep in, ¬†the other can still find things to do and people to do them with. ¬†And in our case, ¬†Nanny and Pop Pop didn’t need or want to visit the ports – they’ve seen them all before – ¬†but the rest of us could, and they still had things to do they enjoy such as the buffet and trivia.
  • Once you’re onboard, ¬†transportation isn’t a concern (unless you visit a port).
  • We all had the Beverage Package included in our cruise fare – ¬†so since dining is also included, there was no worry about splitting tabs.
  • Unlike, say, ¬†a beach rental house, ¬†no one has to cook or clean.
  • With set dining times, ¬†you are guaranteed seating for your large group at a specific time each night. ¬†In our case, we had two adjacent tables in the Cyprus dining room at 6:00pm.
  • Because there were so many of us, ¬†you could always find someone in the group ¬†by checking a few specific areas: ¬†for us, ¬†the Pool Bar, the Martini Bar, the Casino, or the Club. ¬†When hitting the buffet, we always tried to stay in one area so we could find each other.
  • You have an automatic cheering section whenever you play a game or sing karaoke!

Now, a few negative considerations / challenges with a large group:

  • While set dining works, ¬†it can get a little boring, ¬†and it’s difficult to try out “select” or “anytime” dining (where you aren’t scheduled) or specialty restaurants unless you split up the group. We were able to try a couple of the other main dining rooms (the Edge has 4), but only with a very early 5:30 reservation time. ¬†It was important to Nanny and Pop Pop that we all come together for dinner, ¬†so 5:30 or 6:00 it was.
  • We had a group text to communicate, ¬†but it was only partially useful as the Wifi on the ship was spotty (as I have found with virtually every cruise ship – it would be great if they figured this out once and for all).
  • Outside of cruise sponsored excursions, ¬†it wasn’t that easy to explore the islands with such a large group. ¬†We did take taxis to a beach club in Cozumel, which suited everyone, ¬†but at other ports it was more challenging to find something of interest, within everyone’s budget, ¬†along with the necessary transportation. ¬†See below for thoughts on our ports and what we did.

Review of Celebrity Edge:

Market segment: On to my thoughts on the Edge! I haven’t sailed with Celebrity since before I had children so that’s…. a long time. ¬†Celebrity is positioned as a slightly more upscale sister to Royal Caribbean, ¬†a mass market line that in my opinion is one of the best for families with children. ¬†Royal’s ships usually include waterslides, climbing rocks, zippiness, bungee or ropes courses, and other family-friendly features. Norwegian Cruise Lines, ¬†on which we have also sailed a number of times, ¬†is very comparable to Royal Caribbean. ¬†Celebrity, on the other hand, ¬†seems to be geared to a slightly older clientele, ¬†with more lounge, bar, and restaurant space and fewer child-friendly activities. ¬† The other passengers on board tended to average a bit older.

Public spaces: The ship itself is beautiful and very modern, ¬†dominated by gray and tan decor and beautiful lighting throughout. ¬†Debuting in 2019, ¬†the Edge, like most newer cruise ships, ¬†features unique and original spaces designed to separate them from other ships. ¬†On Edge, ¬†one unique feature is the “Magic Carpet”, ¬†a moveable open deck that hangs off one side of the ship. ¬† The Magic Carpet is utilized as a bar/lounge during the day, and a restaurant at night. ¬†It was worth visiting, just for the intrigue of being “off the Edge”. ¬†We didn’t love the Home Depot orange color of the Magic Carpet, ¬†which made it seem like it was under construction – ¬†not what you want when you’re 14 stories above the water. ¬†Another space, “Eden”, ¬†is a multistory, windowed space on the back of the ship that is filled with plants and flowers. ¬†It’s a lounge during the day, and there are shows at night that are choreographed to take advantage of the multiple stories and decks.

Our group, ¬†which included a large number of young twenty-somethings, found ourselves often in the Club, ¬†where dance parties and karaoke were the evening norm. Even Nanny joined in the dancing fun. ¬† The Club is a two story space designed to look like a clubbing space in the city, ¬†with a large dance floor, dark lighting, and many places to lounge around a bar. ¬† The Casino was also a popular spot in the evenings – ¬†Nanny and Pop Pop love their blackjack and Texas Hold’em, ¬†and the relatively low table minimums meant even the young’uns could participate and learn. ¬†Best of all, the Casino is non-smoking – ¬†a huge plus for us.

Embarkation Day Drinks on the Magic Carpet


Rooftop Garden restaurant


Watching football on the Rooftop Garden

The pool on Embarkation Day, before the crowds


Eden Lounge

Overall, this ship felt less crowded than others I’ve been on, ¬†particularly on the two Sea Days. ¬†There were 2800 passengers, ¬†but we generally found at least a few seats wherever we wanted, even during prime time.

Food: ¬† Food taste is very subjective, ¬†but Husband and Oldest son all agreed that this was the best cruise ship food we’ve had. ¬†We never dined in a specialty restaurant, ¬†due to the group size; ¬†on other ships we’ve found that’s where the better food is as compared to “Main Dining”. ¬†On the Edge, ¬†Main Dining is split between 4 restaurants, each with a different theme: ¬†Cyprus (Mediterranean); ¬†Normandie (French); Tuscan (Italian); and Cosmopolitan (New American). ¬†While each menu leaned toward the theme, ¬†there were also non-theme items available. ¬†And, ¬†the special menu changed each night, ¬†which made it easier to dine in the same place nearly every night without getting bored. ¬† We were told that it’s possible to dine in one restaurant and order from another, but I don’t believe any in our group needed to do this. ¬† As a comparison, ¬†on Norwegian, ¬†the main dining restaurant menus do not change night to night, ¬†which is meant to encourage passengers to try alternative (upcharge) restaurants.


Nanny and Pop Pop and “the kids” at dinner

We also found that the buffet, ¬†a cruise ship staple (I actually typed “stable”, ¬†which is adjacent to “hog trough”, ¬†which is what it is on some ships!). was of far better quality than we have experienced elsewhere. ¬†Instead of one long buffet counter, ¬†it was separated into stations, ¬†and at lunch time these stations changed each day. ¬†While there was always a deli, pizza, and grille counter, ¬†one day there was Indian food; ¬†another day Mexican, ¬† providing for plenty of variation. The “eggs your way” station at breakfast was crowded but they made an excellent poached egg. ¬† We never had a problem finding seating – ¬†something that can be an issue on other ships.

One small negative on this front: the bars were not well staffed.  Nearly everyone on board as a drink package,  so there was often quite a wait for drinks at the hotspots.

Cabins: Everyone in our group booked the same cabin type, ¬†an “Infinite Veranda”, and we were all near one another on Deck 7 near the main elevators. ¬†Deck 7 location was great – ¬†an easy walk down to the Martini Bar/ Club/ Restaurant areas on deck 4. ¬† I should also note that the Edge’s elevators seemed generally less crowded than we have experienced on other, larger ships. ¬†The only time there was a wait was on returning to the ship from port.

The cabins themselves are interesting. ¬†Typically, a cruise ship balcony cabin includes a sliding door to an outdoor balcony, ¬†which is partially encased by the ship’s exoskeleton above and below. ¬† On the Edge, ¬†there is no strict outdoor area, ¬†but the entire exterior wall of the cabin is glassed, ¬†and the top half can be lowered creating a “railing” like effect. ¬†There is also a room darkening shade for use at night, ¬†as well as a folding divider to close a balcony-sized area off from the rest of the room if you so choose – ¬†we never used this feature, ¬†but I can imagine that if one of the party wants to enjoy fresh air while the other is sleeping, ¬†it could be useful. ¬† The Infinite Veranda bathroom and shower were very well-sized, ¬†although I would say that some of the space was stolen from the closet, which we found small. ¬†There were plenty of areas in the cabin to store folded clothes, ¬†but the number of hangers and long-hanging space was limited.

I didn’t take any photos of our cabin, ¬†but here’s a great YouTube link showing how they work: ¬†Celebrity Edge Infinite Veranda Review

Activities:¬† It’s impossible to take advantage of every activity on a cruise ship, ¬†even if you stayed on board all week. ¬†But here are a few that our group particularly enjoyed:

  • Karaoke
  • Abba and Queen-themed dance parties, with song lyrics on a big screen for everyone to sing along
  • Trivia – we came in 3rd!? how is that possible?
  • Line dancing by the pool
  • Watching the “pool olympics”
  • Silent Disco – ¬†participants are given headphones which can be switched to one of three channels, ¬†led by DJs. Only those with the headphones can hear the music, so it’s funny to watch (and sometimes painful to listen). ¬†They created a kind of contest between the three channels, trying to get people to switch channels and sing along (imagine a large crowd, one third ¬†singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” another “Don’t Stop Believing” and the other third belting out “Sweet Caroline”).
  • Shows: ¬†our group saw one of the musical shows and a comedy show, and were divided on the quality. ¬†We generally enjoyed spending evening time in places where we could talk (and sing, and dance).


Oldest and Nanny singing their hearts out


Line Dancing by the Pool


Screen Shot 2020-01-20 at 1.09.14 PM.png
Pool dancing to “Hey Baby”

A few things we missed:  Wine and whiskey tasting,  entertainment in Eden, Deal or NO Deal game, Newlywed game, behind-the-scenes ship tours, art auctions, acupuncture, footprint analysis, and a few of the shows. Note that some of these activities require an extra cost,  or they are trying to sell you something (as with almost everything sponsored by the Spa).

Western Caribbean ports:  I was the designated planner, and provided suggestions, but we arranged a teleconference to make some group decisions.  We chose the following for each port on our itinerary:

    • Key West, Florida: ¬†We wandered the downtown area individually and meet up at Hogs Breath bar. ¬†Some of our group ended up renting bikes too.
    • Costa Maya, Mexico: This man made cruise port doesn’t really have a lot to do, other than the beach. ¬†We all met up at the large beach/pool/shopping area just at the end of the dock. ¬†This worked because we all arrived at separate times, ¬†some as early as 9:00am and others didn’t wander off the ship until noon.
    • Cozumel, Mexico: Here we booked Nachi Cocom¬†beach club, ¬†an all inclusive experience with a pool, beach, Mexican food, drinks, and optional water sports and massages. ¬†There were 8 (eight!) ships in port that day, so we were very glad to have a reserved place to go. ¬† We had no problem getting into the taxi queue and finding 2 van taxis for the group of 16 that attended.
    • Grand Cayman: ¬†We had booked a cruise ship excursion to Sting Ray City, ¬†a well-known sandbar where the tame stingrays swim around. ¬†Unfortunately, ¬†we were notified the day prior that the excursion was cancelled due to weather concerns, as there was rain in the forecast. ¬† It actually didn’t end up raining, so this was a bit of a disappointment; ¬†our group made their way independently to Calico Jack’s on Seven Mile Beach and enjoyed the beach itself but found Calico Jack’s to be overpriced and crowded. ¬†All agreed that it’s an island we would like to revisit with better plans.

The view from Costa Maya’s port beach area. ¬†3 big ships!


Relaxing at Nachi Cocom, Cozumel


That’s the idea!

I’ve been to all of these ports before, so I can’t say I was either overly amazed or disappointed in any of them – ¬†they are all, unfortunately, a bit overrun with cruise ship passengers. ¬†It’s a conundrum for the cruise lines, ¬†because the large ships can only dock or tender at certain ports – ¬†if you want a more unique itinerary, ¬†take a much smaller ship.

Nanny & Grandsons in The Club: Multigenerational Cruising at its best!

Sun setting over Miami.  Is there a better sunset than one at sea?

Oktoberfest: Planning Tips for Partying with the World

In a world that often seems divided,  whether by country, politics, religion, or otherwise, Munich‚Äôs Oktoberfest stands in stark contrast. Every year,  millions of patrons from around the world descend on the 16-day annual festival,  which has run since 1810 when it originated in celebration of the marriage of King Louis I (then crown prince of Bavaria)  to Princess Therese.   Today, the festival celebrates Bavarian culture including food,  dress, music, and of course, BEER! 



Inside the Paulaner tent

A few fun statistics from Oktoberfest 2019 (courtesy of https://www.oktoberfesttours.travel/2019/10/10/oktoberfest-2019-beer-consumption/) 

  • 6.3 million patrons consumed 7.3 million liters of beer
  • Attendees hailed from at least 55 nations
  • Lost and Found items included 660 wallets,  420 mobile phones, and a set of dentures (oops!)  

A lot of early planning went into making our visit a success.  Here are a few tips and a review of our experience:

LODGING: Because Oktoberfest attracts so many visitors,  central Munich lodging must be booked well in advance or we would have ended up staying well outside the city.   I had booked the Platzl Hotel (https://www.platzl.de/en/) way back in January,  to ensure we would have a comfortable room in a great location walkable to the Fest. It wasn‚Äôt cheap, but the rooms were comfortable, very near Marienplatz in Munich‚Äôs Old Town and the famous Hofbraeuhaus,  and I thought it would be a reasonably close walk to the festival grounds. It was,  but just barely –  more on that below.

LOCATION AND TRANSPORTATION: Here‚Äôs a tip from my experience:   When figuring out the distance to Oktoberfest from your lodging, note that a simple Google Map routing to Thereisenweise,  the name of the park where Oktoberfest is held, will not necessarily tell you how far you are from the grounds:  Add at least 1/2 a mile.  Due to security, there are only a couple of entrances to the actual festival.  It‚Äôs easy enough to follow the crowd toward the grounds (I promise, you won’t miss it!), but once you reach the perimeter you may have to walk quite a ways,  sometimes away from the grounds through crowd barrier chutes,  to enter the park.   While our hotel was only 1.4 miles (as “the crow flies”),  we walked over 2 miles in addition to a lot of walking within the festival.   On our first day, when we also walked to Bavarian Outfitters (see below),  I clocked over 11 miles on my Apple watch!  After our second evening outing, we caved and got a cab for our tired feet.

CLOTHING: I also pre-reserved rented Trachten (his & hers traditional Bavarian clothing) from Bavarian Outfitters.   The pickup location for the clothing was on the southern edge of Old Town, and reminded me of the pop-up Halloween costume stores that seem to multiply each year at home.  It was an undecorated, rented space with racks and racks of clothing.  I also later realized that there are many similar stores around Munich during the Fest;  pre-reserving probably wasn’t necessary as we were just guessing at sizes anyway, and ended up taking something different than we had reserved.  The results,  however were worth every penny!   Whether you reserve ahead or not,  do rent or buy the clothing, you won’t be sorry!


Husband and I in our Trachten

ATTEND WITH FRIENDS: Another key to the fun was meeting up with friends in Munich.  Oktoberfest is definitely a ‚Äúmore the merrier‚ÄĚ type of place, and it seemed the majority of attendees were part of a larger group.  One couple joined us for our entire stay in Munich,  and we also joined forces with family friends to reserve a whole table at the Marstall tent our first night in town. 










BEER TENT RESERVATIONS: Regarding tent table reservations:  it’s a little crazy.   Many tables are not available to the public;  think of it like season tickets for a popular sports team  – they only go to people who already have a reservation from prior years. Forget about making a reservation on Friday or Saturday, unless you choose to use a service that charges you extra.   And you can’t reserve just a few spots, you need to reserve and pay for the whole table which is 8 – 12 people.  While the tents don’t actually charge for the reservation itself,  you do need to prepay a minimum spend on the food and drink;  in our case for Marstall it was about $50/per person.   In our case,  I was able to snag a Sunday night reservation thanks to alerts from Weisnkini,  which I highly recommend subscribing to if you plan to attend Oktoberfest. I received emails regularly when table reservations became available, and we reserved literally the last table in the Marstall tent for that evening.

Outside the Marstall tent


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View from the very last available table at Marstall

Google Translate was invaluable with the reservations.  While most of the tents have an English page,  the reservation confirmation and “terms and conditions” are all in German –  yikes!  Here’s my confirmation:


WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A TENT RESERVATION:  It would be unlikely (and expensive) to get a reservation for more than one night at the Fest.  If you plan to attend more than once, as we did,  just be prepared to go with the flow.  You won’t get a beer if you aren’t seated. Here are the best options without a reservation:

  • Go during the daytime – before 4pm
  • Avoid weekends, especially weekend evenings
  • Look for seating in the outdoor biergartens adjacent to each tent
  • Go in small groups or be prepared to split up –  there is a much better chance to squeeze into a table with 2 or 4 people than with 8 or 10
  • Be patient;  a little seat-hawking can be worth while –  when you see a group with mostly empty beer glasses, just bide your time nearby as they may be preparing to move on.  There’s still plenty of excellent people-watching activity until you get your beer!
  • Pop into a tent near the end of the night;  within an hour or so of closing,  tents start to empty and you will be able to enter and find a spot at a table

    Biergarten fun


YOUTUBE THE SONG, “EIN PROZIT”.  So you don’t think they are saying “I’m frozen, I’m frozen…” like I did.   #misheardlyrics

DRINK RESPONSIBLY:  Or not.  It’s up to you.  You will be in good company if you choose to overindulge –  the medics are kept busy at Oktoberfest! But the beers are large –  not only do you want to minimize bathroom trips,  (especially for the ladies –  lines and ewwww), but you want to be able to make it home in one piece. On our walk back to the hotel, we saw a group gathered around one of their fallen compatriots –  just completely passed out on the curb.  The police were summoned,  determine he was still breathing, and moved on –  this is just not an emergency in Munich at Oktoberfest.  Another fellow was passed out inside an ATM lobby. Here are a couple of fellow partiers who didn’t quite finish the night:




MAKE FRIENDS FROM AROUND THE WORLD:  We met people from France, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK, and Dubai in addition to other Americans.  Whether sharing your table, or at adjacent tables, or on the dance floor,  find your inner extrovert and enjoy meeting people from all over the world!

Our new friend, “Dubai Guy” was traveling alone.  Ready to head home in his G6

If you’re lucky,  your friend will enjoy enough beer to buy a chicken hat (press a button, and the legs move to the “chicken dance” song),  which will help you make friends!

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A 6’4″ American wearing a chicken hat is a sure hit at Oktoberfest…







Driving the German Autobahn: Where are the potholes?

Hooray!  Husband and I have arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at the start of a new 12 day trip that will take us to several destinations:  the Rhine Valley region,  a short stop on the Romantic Road,  Munich for Oktoberfest, a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria, and the Alsace region of France.  We rented a car for the entire trip.

We rented through a US company called Gemut.com, which specializes in  European and particularly German vehicle rentals for US citizens.  I liked the idea of having a US 1-800 number to call in an emergency, with the promise of an English speaker on the other end of the line.  Plus,  the price was good Р really good. Gamut books German rentals through a consolidator called Auto Europe, for a car rental with Europcar. The price was 10-20% less than booking directly to either of those websites.  I also priced out Sixt and Hertz,  two other big providers.  Gemut was also very responsive when I had questions prior to the trip. 

Side Note: I’m a Hertz Gold Club member through ownership of a Marriott Vacation Club property, and their prices are just never, ever competitive.  Why is that?

We found the Europcar desk and because we had arrived early, ¬†the car I had reserved, a 4 door sedan with automatic transmission in the Premium category (BMW, Mercedes, or Audi) wasn‚Äôt available yet. ¬†I‚Äôm not sure I believe that one would have suddenly become available in the next 45 minutes, but whatever. ¬†The major difference in what we got was that it was not a sedan, but a station wagon. ¬†Maybe not as ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ from an American point of view, but as the Europcar agent noted, ¬†Germans looooove their station wagons. ¬†This proved true – ¬†there aren‚Äôt many SUVs on the roads here, but a plethora of high-end wagons. ¬†My guess is they are more aerodynamic than a behemoth SUV. Also, the agent waived the usual charge for a second authorized driver – ¬†we knew we both wanted to drive here. So, ¬†no harm no foul. ¬†5 doors instead of 4. All good.¬† I neglected to take a good photo of our actual car, but here is the general idea (credit bmw.com):

I declined the CDW insurance,  after reading and rereading the terms and benefits of my Sapphire card Р we were clearly covered as primary insurance,  this saved us hundreds of dollars.  Always read the fine print though :  there are exclusions,  such as not having the primary cardholder as the renter, super high-end exotic cars,  and tires and windshields. In contrast to experiences I’ve had renting cars in the US, the German Europcar agent did not press us to buy any insurance.

We spent a good 15 minutes in the rental car garage, figuring out the car’s menu, setting up bluetooth, and getting the navigation, etc. to work in English rather than German:

Eventually we got it set up and entered our first destination,  tiny Oberwesel on the Rhine River, about an hour from the airport. I don’t like to plan a long drive after a sleep-deprived overnight flight,  so I always try to keep the first destination within an hour. 

The car ended up having a ‚Äúpop-up display‚ÄĚ,  visible to the driver only, displaying the vehucle‚Äôs speed, speed limits, and navigational information including directions onto the lower windshield.  This ended up being very useful.  We drove over 1800 kilometers on this trip – about 800 miles – and experienced road closures,  border crossings, lots of construction, small cities with narrow cobblestone streets, and widely varying speed limits. 

I was impressed with the car’s technology. In addition to the pop up display,  parking sensors, and lane deviation/ correction capability, we were frequently rerouted around traffic,  and the car seemed to know where every speed limit change occurred.  On the highway,  speed limit changes were numerous and frequent, and it wouldn’t have been easy for the driver to notice every sign.  This car not only  displayed the limit,  but on both the dashboard and the pop up window,  our speed would display as red if we were over the limit, white if under it.   

Things you see on German highways, part 1

I was also impressed with German highways – the ‚ÄúAutobahn‚ÄĚ in general. ¬†Here, an important side note/ question: ¬†am I the only American who thought there was ONE Autobahn? If so, ¬†feel free to laugh at me. ¬†‚ÄúThe German Autobahn‚ÄĚ turns out to be any major highway starting with ‚ÄúA‚ÄĚ. ¬† ¬†And many, many miles of these ‚ÄúA‚ÄĚ roads indeed have speed limits, ¬†especially through construction zones and congested city areas. But – ¬†then you see a speed limit with a line through it, ¬†usually in a wide open, rural area – ¬†and there it is – the limitless Autobahn of lore. *tingle*

Things you see on German highways, Part 2

We did experience a fair amount of traffic,  especially around Munich (Oktoberfest brings in 6,000,000+ visitors so this was hardly surprising)  and often there were brief slowdowns caused by construction.  It seems as though every 10-20 miles,  lanes were closed.  Bridges, tunnels, open stretches.  Germany is spending heavily on road infrastructure.  The result, over our 800-plus-mile journey ?  NO potholes.  And NO accidents.  The highways are correctly graded,  with minimal intersections and wide exit and entrance lanes.  We dealt with a lot of rain, but no ponding of water on the road. These roads are well maintained. 

Things you see on German highways, Part 3

So, want to hear about our little bit of adventure in the limitless Autobahn?
Both Husband and I kind of like to drive fast. We are from New Jersey, after all. But,  we also consider ourselves to be safe drivers,  never tailgating ,  minimizing lane changes, and keeping with the flow of traffic.   We’re just unlikely to be driving in the right lane,  content behind a tractor trailer. 

When we hit the limitless areas, ¬†we typically enjoyed driving along with most of the other left lane vehicles at 150-170 kilometers per hour ( in the 80-90 mph range). It was rare, however that we could go much faster than this – ¬†due to rain, wet roads, and congestion, we hesitated to really test out the BMW‚Äôs potential. ¬†But , over the course of the trip, ¬†each of us got the golden opportunity we were looking for – ¬†a wide, ¬†3 lane road , ¬†dry conditions, no cars in front of us, and a straightaway with long forward views. ¬†When we got that chance …. yep, we punched the gas pedal.¬†

It should be noted that drivers in Germany are much more vigilant about the ‚Äėkeep right, pass left‚ÄĚ laws that also exist in the States, but are rarely followed, at least where I live. ¬†Trucks are almost never seen out of the right lane. ¬†And when in the left lane, ¬†if a driver sees a faster approaching car in the review mirror, ¬†they move to the right. ¬†How refreshing !! ¬†

Our  top speeds were only maintained for a few seconds each, and then we returned to the safer, slightly slower speeds.  


The display in kph added to the rush we experienced – ¬†seeing ‚Äú200‚ÄĚ on the gauge. ¬†Yikes! ¬†Husband won the top speed award, hitting 219 kph (136mph!). We were both more than thrilled by the experience.¬†

One final note for those who might be considering driving in Germany, but traveling across country borders. In either Switzerland or Austria, a vignette (toll sticker) is required, and must be purchased either before entering the country, or immediately thereafter in the case of Austria / at the border in the case of Switzerland.

Austrian vignette on top; Swiss vignette on bottom

Vignettes are available at most gas stations and convenience stores near the border. The Austrian sticker cost about $10 for a 10-day pass; the Swiss sticker was only available for the year, and cost about $40. It will be a lucky day for any future drivers who rent the same car and want to drive into Switzerland in 2019, I guess… We were glad we purchased our vignette before crossing the Swiss border, because there was a long line for cars waiting to purchase their stickers.

Our German/Austrian/Swiss/French driving experience was, at times, all of the following:

  • Enlightening
  • Exhilarating
  • Rainy
  • Scenic
  • Fun
  • Exhausting?
It’s a good thing Husband trusts my driving…

Singapore Air Business Class: Expectations = Sky High

Hi friends!  It‚Äôs been awhile since I‚Äôve posted – life intervenes! – and I have so many things to share with you.  In addition to our spring 2019 trip to Costa Rica,  Husband and I recently  returned from Germany and France,  achieving  a lifelong goal of attending  Oktoberfest!  I‚Äôve also spent time with Oldest in Chicago and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and with family and friends at our new home in nearby Lewes. Delaware. We managed to squeezed in a work-related extended trip to San Diego as well.

In the interest of getting back into the writing habit as quickly as possible,  I‚Äôm going to start with our most recent trip to Europe first, before sharing highlights from prior trips such as Costa Rica (she says hopefully). 

This post will detail our departure experience on Singapore Airlines flight # SQ25 from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany in Business Class. 

Although JFK is not our most convenient airport, often the best value-for-points flights to Europe originate there.  As I‚Äôve noted previously,  I really REALLY prefer a lie-flat seat on an overnight flight.     For me, actual sleep is important, and  I‚Äôm saving a whole day of vacation by landing with at least some semblance of my consciousness intact on that first morning.    So,  we bit the bullet, paid the $100+ Uber fare, and headed across Manhattan at rush hour to catch the 8:55pm flight. By the way, the late time of this flight is what I usually look for when traveling to Europe – the later the flight, the more chance I’ll be tired enough to sleep shortly after takeoff.

My very first trip over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!

It may seem odd to have a flight on Singapore Airlines that has neither an origin nor destination anywhere near Singapore.  It turns out,  this is a rather unique itinerary known as a “Fifth Freedom” route, allowing Singapore to pick up and drop off passengers on what is essentially a stopover in JFK. You can read more about Fifth Freedom flights here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2018/05/30/what-you-need-to-know-about-fifth-freedom-flights/#2270a7b63c85

I booked the flight using Chase Sapphire Reserve points, transferred to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.  Singapore has a vaunted reputation for service,  and it‚Äôs easy to get excited about their beautiful suites when you click around on their website.  So much space!  So comfortable!  See, here‚Äôs the thing –  the suites are only available for First Class, not Business Class.  They would have cost a sizeable amount of additional points. So, nice,  but no.  More trips > one trip , amirite? 

So what DO you get in Business Class? Pre-flight lounge access. A short but wide, angled flatbed capable seat. Free alcoholic drinks.  Professional, courteous service. Dinner, and/or breakfast, and/or the right to be left alone and skip dining in favor of sleep (I chose the latter, Husband chose dinner only). 

We arrived well before the flight, and our tickets granted access to the King David lounge at JFK.  I was surprised,  because my research told me that the typical lounge for this flight is Swiss Airlines’ lounge, as part of the Global Alliance.  However,  the Swiss Lounge was under construction.  The King David Lounge, sponsored by El Al,  appears to seat about 85-100 people, and every seat was taken. People were sitting on the floor and window ledge.  The majority of the passengers were headed to Israel, so when that earlier flight boarded, the lounge felt much less crowded.  I’m fairly certain that the food was  Kosher, although I didn‚Äôt actually see any signage to this effect. The well-stocked buffet included mostly cold foods, such as lox and bagels,  tuna  and egg salads, and a Greek-style salad.  The wine was a very tasty red blend from Israel.  We were lucky to find an outlet to charge our devices – I would estimate there was one for every 10 or so passengers in the lounge.  I didn‚Äôt take photos in the lounge.  Lounge grade:  B-, due to being overcrowded initially with little hot food available.  

Now let‚Äôs get to the plane. Singapore flies a two-decker A 380 on this route. The Business Class seats are all on the upper deck; unlike the 747s of old, you don’t climb stairs on the plane, you simply embark on the upper level. The boxy style of the seats reminded me of the Commodore 64 computers that adorned my college computer lab.

Someone at Singapore Air really likes beige.

As to the seat itself:  I don‚Äôt claim to be the world‚Äôs most experienced overseas flatbed seat traveler,  but I‚Äôve been on Aer Lingus, United, Virgin, and Lufthansa.   Singapore‚Äôs bed was easily the worst.   Husband and I were in middle seats (both aisles, the configuration is 1 – 2 – 1) so we could be next to each other;  seats next to the windows were singles.  They appeared to have the same dimensions as our center seats.  The seats are wide,  but the space available to lie flat is made for people 5‚Äô6‚ÄĚ or less. 

Husband settles into the Business Class seat.

It‚Äôs not every day that my vertical challenges are an advantage, but today was that day.  The seats are in a pod style format ,  with a footwell in the seat in front – but angled toward the middle of the plane.  The ‚Äúbed‚ÄĚ is created by folding down the back of the seat toward the footwell –  you have to get out of the seat for it to become a bed.  I prefer the seats that simply recline all the way to a flat position –  it‚Äôs just easier.   A flight attendant is ready to assist, but I didn‚Äôt want to wait for that – I had taken my sleep aid and was ready to go down as soon as the plane was in the air –  so I struggled a bit but eventually figured it out by watching like-minded passengers set up their beds.

The bigger issue was the length of the bed. I am almost 5‚Äô3 and I just barely fit.  Taller people, including Husband, had really no choice but to lay in a fetal position – and due to the angled footwell,  they had to stay on one side.  I don‚Äôt know about you, but I usually move at least once or twice in a 6 hour period – middle age creeping in, after all.   I knew what to expect from reading other reviews, but I was still surprised by the discomfort.   In addition,  when upright (even when somewhat reclined) ,  my short legs barely reached the footwell –  because the seat doesn‚Äôt shift forward,  there‚Äôs nothing supporting your legs if your feet don‚Äôt  reach.  

stretching so my toes reach the footwell – not so comfortable

Husband reports that his filet mignon dinner was tasty enough, and he enjoyed a few cocktails as well.  He doesn‚Äôt need as much sleep as I do,  luckily,  because he didn‚Äôt get much. 

Also, the bed was very hard. And it would have been nice had the center console lifted up –  we both would have benefited from more space that way and could have better utilized the angles. Plus, a little snuggly time. Overall seat grade:  C+.  Only because flat was technically possible. 

The flight and service were timely, well-coordinated, and smooth,  we actually arrived in Frankfurt a full hour ahead of schedule –  a mixed blessing when jet lag looms.  Flight grade was an A.

Overall:  lest I sound like a whiner or unappreciative, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Singapore Business Class experience.  It was good. I’ve certainly suffered through more uncomfortable flights (and more uncomfortable situations, but that’s a story for another day….).  We arrived, early, in one piece and with a little sleep to boot. Germany, here we come!

Dingle All the Way

From our base in Killarney, Oldest and I next headed to one of my favorite spots in Ireland: ¬†the Dingle Peninsula. ¬†While it’s definitely worthwhile to spend more time here by staying in Dingle Town, about 1/2 way out the peninsula, it would have been too many overnight destinations for us on this trip. The drive from Killarney was a surprisingly easy and uncomplicated day trip.

Just past Inch Beach on the R 561 (“R” roads are very ¬†narrow, ¬†twisty, and “interesting!”, only to be surpassed in treachery by “L” roads), ¬†we had to slow down for this lovely lady and her baby, who can barely be seen behind mama:

Farmers mark their sheep with different shades of paint

Since my primary goal was to show Oldest the Slea Head Drive, at the peninsula’s tip, ¬†we set our Google Maps directions straight for Dingle town, where one of the first sights we came upon was …. a dog … sitting on top of a donkey. Hey, why not?


We wandered around the busy town for a bit, ¬†enjoyed an early lunch, and downed a pint of Crean’s, the local beer. ¬†Crean’s is named after Tom Crean, an Antarctic explorer who hailed from the Dingle Peninsula.

Heading to the Beer Garden at Danno’s

Glad it wasn’t Monday, but this sign is cute!



Only one, though, ¬†because I was back to driving – ¬†and now the roads became quite narrow. ¬†While it’s possible for two cars to pass, ¬†it’s not necessarily advisable:

Oldest took this one from the passenger side.

Slea Head marks the end of the peninsula, and, like many points on the west coast, the locals will tell you when looking east “The next stop is America!”. ¬† We continued to benefit from nice weather, so we were fairly active in our exploration of the peninsula, ¬†first walking from the parking area down to Slea Head Beach, at sea level:

View of Slea Head Beach, from above. The “arrow” in the sand must be pointing to buried treasure. ¬†Right?

This sign did not stop the swimmers


Then we hiked back up,  and further up, to Dunmore Head promontory. Nearby signs told us that some filming for Star Wars took place here, although it is not the more famous Skellig Michael island,which is off the coast to our south.


Walking up to the Head required climbing over an old stone fence, ¬†which didn’t work out so well for yours truly, ¬†who lost her balance and skinned my knees in a pretty gruesome way (I’ll spare you the yucky photo). ¬† It was still worthwhile, though, just for these photos, looking back at the peninsula. ¬†It was my 3rd trip to this spot, and each time I want to lie down and never leave these soft, rolling, green hills. ¬†Although I imagine I might feel differently in, say, December.


Oldest with one of the two “Devils Horns” at Dunmore Head

Beautiful, even when seen with bloody knees

In three trips to Ireland, I have managed to make it to the Slea Head drive on the Dingle peninsula every time.  It is truly one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited, and I truly enjoyed sharing it with Oldest.  I have no doubt I will return again.

Planning a trip to Costa Rica: A very wordy explanation of how (and why) I plan trips

Are you interested in hearing more about how I plan my trips? ¬†If so, ¬†read on, and I’ll describe the next major trip I am taking with Dearest Husband. ¬†I’ll let you know when and how I initially researched each trip, ¬†what and when has been booked, and what my next steps will be to complete my trip planning process. ¬†By the end, ¬†you will be certain that my blog name should be CrazyBankerChickTravels.net. ¬† If not, cheers and Happy New Year, you just got 30 minutes back! ¬† I’ll be back to writing about actual travel experiences shortly.


The seeds of my 2019 travel plans were planted well before 2018. ¬†For several years, ¬†I have maintained a list of most-wanted destinations, on a spreadsheet that also includes whether I see the destination as best with a group, ¬†with kids, ¬†with ¬†husband, and what months/seasons would be best to visit ¬†(generally: ¬†I prefer the “shoulder seasons” unless a destination is really weather dependent). ¬†However, I also need to factor in our kids’ schedules; ¬†for example, ¬†this summer we will be sending one off to college, but we won’t know the dates for several months when she decides which school to attend. ¬†Hence, ¬†the entire month of August is off the list for major trip planning in 2019. ¬†Other key dates such as graduations, weddings, Husband’s trade shows, etc., ¬†can also be a factor in choosing travel dates.

flat lay photography of calendar


Since I’m still tied to an office, ¬†I also need to plan out my time away from work – ¬†unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to travel as much as I want and still have my banking career. ¬†¬†Generally, ¬†I allocate between 13-17 annual vacation days to up to two major trips. ¬† ¬†There are typically a few long-weekend, ¬†1-2 day trips as well, ¬†but these are handled a lot more spontaneously.

When I Book Flights and Lodging

Since I’m a confessed “obsessive travel planner”, ¬†my significant trips are generally booked, at least on a skeletal basis (required flights, maybe a hotel or two), ¬†9-12 months in advance. ¬† I then utilize the intervening time to plan an actual itinerary.

So right about now you are probably saying ¬†“OMG Banker Chick ¬†you must be kidding me! ¬†I don’t know what I want to do or if I’ll be available that far in advance! ¬†So many things can happen!” While this is true, ¬†I’ll attempt to make my case in a Q&A format:

Q: Why should I start booking so early?

A: Three reasons:

  • In my experience, the best opportunities to book a long-haul flight, hopefully using points, ¬†is just after a flight becomes available. ¬†On most airlines, ¬†seats are released ¬†11-12 months before travel. ¬†I only pay actual $ for an overseas flight if it’s an exceptional bargain (which is tough to do at the last minute, for a popular destination, in a nice weather season).
  • While it’s unusual for hotels to fill up that far in advance, for certain destinations and timeframes, ¬†choices become limited as the date approaches. ¬†I like choices, ¬†so knowing my dates early means I can research and choose from literally any lodging.
  • I’ve found that committing to the dates early makes it more likely that I’ll actually travel. It is far too easy to talk about a trip, ¬†discover that the price is prohibitive or the best hotels booked, and say “eh, maybe next year”.

Q: But what if something changes and I can’t make the trip?

A: Yep, this is a risk.  There are two ways to manage this risk:

  • Carefully read the terms & conditions of all travel bookings. In most cases, ¬†points-based flights can be changed or cancelled with very minimal change fees. The airlines don’t mind getting that free seat back to sell. ¬†Similarly, ¬†most hotels do not require upfront payment, or if they do, ¬†may offer free cancellation up until a certain date closer to travel.
  • Buy trip insurance. ¬†While certain travel uncertainties, such as trip delays and lost luggage, are covered by a good travel credit card, full trip insurance packages such as those offered by Insure My Trip¬†also cover cancellation of a trip due to illness of the traveler or a primary family member, and medical costs while traveling. ¬† Many policies also offer a “cancel for any reason” or “cancel for work reasons” rider, ¬†for an extra cost. ¬†Per the bullet point above, ¬†carefully read the terms & conditions.

Costa Rica, March 2019

Costa Rica has been on my “most wanted” list for years. ¬†It’s billed as safe, friendly, ¬†and most of all, beautiful with a diverse landscape that is dramatically different to my own. ¬†So, ¬†why now?

This one came down to timing. ¬†Husband and I will celebrate our 10th Anniversary in March, 2019, and want to spend this special day in a special destination. ¬† March can be chilly in most of the Northern hemisphere, ¬†and anticipating time spent in a sunny climate is the best antidote to a chilly East Coast winter. We also considered Aruba (where we own a timeshare), but decided we would rather explore a new locale; ¬†Hawaii, ¬†where we spent our honeymoon in 2009; and Australia, ¬†but decided that this year, we didn’t want to dedicate the full 2 -3 weeks really needed to justify the long flight and expense.

Step 1: Initial planning and Research for Costa Rica

Once I’ve identified a likely destination candidate, it’s on to my bookmarks menu. ¬†As I research trips or come across interesting travel sites pertaining to my “most wanted” list, ¬†I make sure to bookmark interesting sites under a detailed “Travel” menu, by country. ¬†Once I decide to book a trip, ¬†the destination gets its own top billing on the bookmark menu until the trip has taken place (then, the bookmarks return to the general “travel” category).

For Costa Rica,  two travel/blog sites stood out:   Pura Vida, eh? and Two Weeks in Costa Rica,   written by avid travelers who have permanently relocated from North America to Costa Rica.

Step 2: Determining what we want to see, possible overnight destinations, and booking flights

Utilizing these sites and others, the next step was to determine exactly where in Costa Rica we might want to go. ¬†Quickly recognizing that the country’s climate and topography is extremely diverse, and that we would be comfortable driving our own rental car, I realized that we would want to stay in more than one overnight destination. Whenever this is the case, ¬†and when there is more than one major international airport, ¬†I look into the possibility of an “open-jaw” flight:

Sample open jaw flight

Open jaw means flying into one airport, and out of another.  Although there is a cost of transportation between the two airports (in this case,  a one way car rental fee),  I like the possibilities and time savings of not having to backtrack.

At this point, ¬†I spend a lot of time with my favorite mapping tools. ¬†I look at the various destinations mentioned in the travel sites I’ve previously saved, ¬†as well as Tripadvisor, Fodor’s, and other general travel sites. ¬†I Google images of various towns and cities to see if they look like they match what I’m looking for. ¬† I print a map and mark potential destinations, ¬†to get a sense of their proximity to the various airports.

Since booking the flights usually comes first, ¬†I determined that an open-jaw itinerary utilizing two ¬†Costa Rica’s major airports, Liberia, ¬†and ¬†San Jose, ¬†which are about 3 – 4 hours apart by drive time, ¬†could work. ¬† Then, ¬†I research the best flight options. Into A, and out of B? ¬†Into B, and out of A? ¬†on what dates? ¬†Can I cover a weekend? ¬†Two weekends? In this case, we wanted to enjoy Costa Rica on the actual date of our anniversary, ¬†so I worked around that. ¬†I was able to secure First Class seats from our local airport, Newark, ¬†to Liberia, ¬†returning form San Jose to Newark. We are paying for the flight down, ¬†with a very reasonable mid-3 figure fare, ¬†and utilizing points for the return. Happy with the overall travel cost and getting some First Class pampering for our big anniversary, I booked these flights in early June 2018.

Step 2 1/2: Buy Trip Insurance. ¬†If I’ve paid for flights, ¬†presumably utilizing a nonrefundable fare, ¬†now is the time to buy the trip insurance. If all flights are booked using points, ¬†this can wait until I’ve made a significant cash payment for some element of the trip, for example, an AirBnB stay.

Step 3: Finalizing overnight destinations and # of nights in each place

OK, phew.  Flights are booked.  Now,  I take another look at my potential destinations.  What is there to do in each place? How far is it from each airport, and how far are the destinations from one another?

My definite preference is a minimum of 3 nights in a given location,  with the small exception of an airport hotel sleepover prior to an early flight. 3 nights give you two full days where no travel is required, to fully explore a destination.  Of course,  more can be better,  but I start with 3. I also prefer to keep travel time between overnight destinations to about 1/2 day. This gives time for a leisurely pace.

In Costa Rica, I realized that while we will never be able to enjoy the whole country in the 10 days we have allotted to the trip, ¬†we should be able to spend time in two of Costa Rica’s most reknowned climates: ¬†the Pacific coastal beaches, ¬†and the Arenal Volcano/ rainforest region in the northern central part of the country. My goal on a first trip is to sample some of the more popular locales first. ¬†Who knows when we will return? Highlights and generally highlights for a reason. ¬† Maybe that’s not too adventurous of me, but I also want to make sure that I’m spending my hard earned money, and 10 precious travel days, in a worthwhile manner.

Once I’ve centered on my overnight destination(s), I begin researching hotels or other lodging options. ¬†To choose a hotel, ¬†my primary sources of information ¬†are direct hotel websites and TripAdvisor.

A note on TripAdvisor:

While I utilize its “Traveler Rankings” as a general guide, ¬†I do not believe that a hotel rated #2 ¬†of 20 is infinitely better than one rated, say, #9 of 20. ¬† It’s probably¬†a better choice than the ones rated 19 and 20, ¬†so to save time I generally only dig deeply into the top 40-50% of ranked hotels for my desired destination, and within that group, ¬†the ones that fit ¬†my budget. ¬† ¬†I look at price, ¬†overall star rating, ¬†and then I do the real dirty work: ¬†I read traveler reviews. ¬†The most important thing here is not to let any single review make your decision. ¬† ¬†Here are the types of reviews I make sure to read:

  • Most recent – ¬†here I quickly look at the most recent 15-20 reviews. ¬†If more than a couple are less than 3 star, ¬†that may be a bad sign. But not necessarily.
  • Worst reviews – ¬†those with 1 and 2 stars. ¬†How recent are they? ¬†What are the actual complaints?
    • are they extremely subjective? (i.e. the food stinks, the beds are too hard)
    • is it clear that the traveler had reasonable expectations ? In this category are those complaining that their Costa Rica resort was “too hilly” and it was hard to walk around. ¬†Um, ¬†did you look at a map/ photos?
    • typically at least 30% of these are related to booking issues: ¬†“they didn’t have my reservation”. ¬†Unless this is a frequent complaint, ¬†I tend to believe that in the age of computers, ¬†resorts that are otherwise well-reviewed do not just “lose” a reservation.
    • Another 30% or so are typically dedicated to a service rant regarding a particular individual. ¬†I usually disregard these, unless it’s a frequent or recently repetitive complaint. ¬†But if it was that frequent, ¬†the hotel wouldn’t have an overall 4 star rating.
  • Reviews from the season I intend to travel – for obvious reasons
  • “Average” reviews: ¬†those with 3 stars. ¬†I find that these reviews usually include a lot of good information and “pros and cons”, ¬†and are generally not written by someone with an axe to grind. ¬† Your con, might be my pro ¬†(ie, “it was too quiet, and there was nothing happenning at night” ¬†or “too many children”).

I will comment here that I’m less of a TripAdvisor fan now that it seems to be more focused on being a travel booking engine than a traveler review site. ¬†So, ¬†I also read reviews on Booking.com and Hotels.com for good measure. Hey, it’s still better than relying on the hotel website’s own reviews.

Step 4: Exploring destination options and booking activities that require booking.

Now: ¬†I know where I’m staying and for how many nights. ¬†By this point, I’ve also created a running, stream-of-consciousness set of notes on the overnight locations, including activities specific to the hotel. ¬† These might look something like this:

Guanacaste – Papagayo

beaches, small towns  dry & dusty in March

river or national park, wildlife

waterfall or white wtaer rafting a possibility

one small casino in Tamarindo 1 hr drive from Papagayo

shuttle to Four Seasons or sunset catamaran

mixology class

Arenal – La Fortuna –

Mud baths, volcano hike, hanging bridges, hot springs **bring bug spray**

spa, cooking class on site?

zip lining available but bumpy car ride

coffee and chocolate plantations

There’s a lot more – ¬†my notes pages for a 10 day trip are typicallly ¬†4- 5 full Word Doc pages of this rambling, and at the end I include general tips and a packing list.

Again,  for this I utilize TripAdvisor,  focusing primarily on the now VERY HARD TO FIND (are you listening, TA)?  destination forums.  Again,  comments on the forums are taken with a grain of salt,  but it becomes clear pretty quickly who the real destination experts are.

A key at this point:  do any of the activities we really want to do,  require prebooking?

You may not believe me, ¬†but although I’m an obsessive planner, I would rather NOT prebook every activity down to the last minute. ¬† Instead, ¬†I prefer to prebook only activities that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • can’t miss,
  • unavailable without a reservation, or
  • will have to wait in a 3 hour line

For example,  the Sistine Chapel during Easter week.   Otherwise,  I create a set of options that we can review each day and decide what to do based on the weather,  our energy level, or what someone at the bar told us about the previous evening.

Step 5: (optional) Create itinerary balance view calendar

For long trips, ¬†I think it’s important to ensure that the itinerary includes a balance of busy days, ¬†travel days, and rest / optional days. ¬†As I already noted, ¬†I like to spend several days in a location, ¬†rather than traveling day after day after day, ¬†with a trip that ends up being no more than the view of a car or train window. ¬†I have found the best way to visualize the “busyness balance” of a trip.

A snapshot of an early itinerary balance view calendar from my recent Scotland-Ireland trip (I ended up changing this a bit,  but you get the idea):

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 5.37.39 PM


As you might imagine, the color codes have a meaning:  Green = unplanned free time or very minimal time requirements, explore options;  Red = booked;  Blue = travel.

I did not feel the need to create a balance view calendar for Costa Rica, as there will be a plenty of downtime on this trip, ¬†on purpose. ¬† It’s more important for a sightseeing-heavy itinerary.

Step 6:  Create Detailed Itinerary

This is my piece-de-resistance, and the result of all this effort. ¬†For each trip, I create a word document (actually, I’ve been using Pages lately), ¬†day by day, ¬†including every booking: ¬†flights, hotels, reservation #s, contact info, website links, and pictures.

I’m currently finalizing this for my March trip, ¬†and my goal is to have it completed 1 month before travel.

The average document is about 10 pages long, and can be longer depending on the trip length and number of destinations. ¬†I use large font and lots of photos, so this isn’t as much as it seems. ¬†But it allows us to take a quick look, and visually see our days and options. ¬†I also include a list of restaurants in each location, from reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and TA forum mentions. ¬†I don’t always stick to these restaurants, ¬†as I love to stumble upon a place, ¬†but sometimes it’s nice to just say “I’m feeling like pizza” and not have to go to far to find a decent one.

These itineraries function as my own personal guidebook for my trip. ¬†They are uploaded to icloud and downloaded to my iPad so they can be visible even if I’m offline.

Since this detailed personal itinerary document maybe be hard to picture, ¬†I’ve added a link here to the first 5 pages of my Scotland & Ireland 2018 itinerary – ¬†I hope you’ll get the idea! ¬†Scotland Ireland 2018 itinerary

Step 7: Upload Itinerary and reservation confirmations / emails to icloud.

We’re almost there!!! ¬† This is where the excitement starts to really build, ¬†and the trip is close. ¬†During the last few weeks prior to the trip, I will create .pdf documents of all confirmation emails, and related documents. ¬†These go in specific folders in my icloud drive labeled Flights, Lodging, Car Rentals, Trip Insurance, ¬†etc. ¬† ¬†If possible, ¬†I carry no paper – ¬†occasionally, though, a reservation will specify that I need a printed copy.

Step 8, which may overlap with steps above:  start planning the next trip.  

This is  arguably the most important step of all.  Step 8 should be started preferably before the prior trip,  so there is ALWAYS something to look forward to, even on the last day of an amazing trip.   In this case:  Prost! to Oktoberfest in Munich,    September 2019!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my process, and maybe picked up a tip or two. ¬†Maybe you completely disagree with my process, and prefer to just wing it: ¬†if so, more power to you! ¬†There’s room for every travel style – ¬†I just like mine best ūüôā .