Airport Zen

Surviving An International Flight with Kids: Europe with Teenagers

Park and Ride drop offs; shoes-off-tech-out security screenings; gate change; screaming kids; and octogenarians who have never flown before all collide into one frenetic, frustrating, infuriating pulse during the experience that is airplane travel.

But, when you travel as frequently as I do (just got my Platinum Medallion welcome kit five years running, Damn Diamond always just out of reach!) if you let the airport get to you, you’ll start to look like your passport photo. So, I like to practice what I call, “Airport Zen.”

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Airport Zen takes focus, and practice – much like any meditative practice. Finding it for the first time is a struggle, maintaining it is even harder, but when it’s there it offers a perfect little mental oasis inside the traveler’s hell known as the airport.

Finding Airport Zen in Lines

Lines? An opportunity to breathe in for three, hold for two, and release for six; during which time I zone in on someone or something pleasant to look at (advertisements for a juicy steak, a child behaving like children do, a couple in love) and observe the world around me.

Repeat: At Airports, Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional

Security? I move intentionally, not allowing myself to assume the anticipatory posture of “hurry up and wait”. I always wear slip on shoes and the same no-pockets-no-mistakes linens pants with no belt or jewelry when I fly, so I can skip the harried wardrobe change at screening and I have only to pick up a tray (at the exact moment it is needed) place my laptop and toiletries case inside, leave my passport and boarding pass on top, then breathe again and follow the person in front of me. All in a deliberate, intentionally relaxed fashion, forcing my shoulders not to clench and my teeth not to grind in annoyance at the cattle call around me.

Airport Zen in Flight

The Flight? When I board the plane I consider my seat a protective nest for the next 2-12 hours and I settle in, just like in yoga, and focus on finding my “posture” – the most comfortable way to sit in non-reclining 33B. I un-shoe down to my comfy travel socks (the kind I keep a ziplock bag for so I can wear them in airplane bathrooms and not care how dirty they get), request a blanket and pillow, then pull out a book for the rest of the take off process (the real kind, with pages, that turn off the electronic buzz and open my mind to a pretend world of interesting people.)

Once in air I order two glasses of water and a glass of wine, drink it slowly, and meditate on nothing.

This relaxed approach makes flying a “practice” rather than a burden, and helps me arrive at my final destination refreshed and ready to hit the ground running at a break-neck pace.

But, how does Airport Zen work with kids?

Airport Zen with Kids

To be honest, it kind of doesn’t – because kids are humans with their own needs, wants, and agenda. But, a few tips can increase the likelihood of success.

  • Airport Hack One: Buy your way out of inconvenience whenever you can possibly afford it – Uber, SkyCap, Upgrade to Priority Boarding, Pay for Clear if you fly more than three tines per year but don’t have status (Amex Card Holders get a discount).
  • Airport Hack Two: Don’t Bring “That”: Whatever annoying, bulky, awkward “want to, don’t need to” device you’re thinking of bringing – DON’T unless: you will have a dedicated hand that can carry it through the airport, it will be DEFINITELY used at least 50% of days, it would cost you more than $75 to buy it on your vacay if you decide you need it. See airport hack one. Thus includes ANY drinks or containers that carry drinks you might forget about (you can buy them on the other side).
  • Airport Hack Three: Consider shelling out the $$ to visit an airport lounge or at least a convenient restaurant; start your vacay the second you leave home to get everybody in a celebratory mood.
  • Airport Hack Four: Check in online, stalk seat assignments in the weeks leading up to your flight to get the best choice, and involve all fliers in the process. Everybody over age five should be personally responsible for getting their body on the plane – which means you should have age-appropriate conversations about what to expect at the airport, when, why, and how to respond.
  • Airport Hack Five: Screens, all the screens, pretty, pretty screens!

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My Go-To Carry On Travel Gear List

Prepping for my next big voyage: Toronto, Amsterdam, and London. Is it in bad taste if I thank the tragic Ebola outbreak for saving my Labor Day weekend and cancelling my leg in Pretoria?

Figured I’d share my packing lists:

Travel Items

After a luggage-check mishap in the UK earlier this year I am now firmly committed to the carry on only approach. So, I use my smaller carry-on for toiletries and make-up kit, and put my hair items inside my larger rolling bag (which I also carry on). I then tuck my purse inside its protective bag inside the smaller carry-on, and keep my baggage light and easy, and out of the cargo hold.

Clear Plastic Sample Containers for Makeup and Skincare

I also re-pot my foundations into these clever little clear plastic makeup sample containers I found on Amazon: Click Here to buy.

Travel Makeup

The trick to ensure I can go carry on only? Editing my wardrobe down to basic, easy, color story mix-and-match items that can make a variety of looks without a lot of weight.

Packing List

Not a Victim

When I tell people about places I’ve been, or where I’m going, I occasionally get “The Look”. The Look is that face of disapproval that screams, “Do you want to be raped, murdered, sold into sexual slavery, and then dumped into a septic tank?”

It’s a rhetorical and silent question, but if I had the nerve to challenge them, my answer would sound something like: “I would rather live today, and experience that life, than live in fear of what might happen, and still find myself in the exact same circumstances in a parking garage at the library one night, ten minutes from my own home.”

Women are safe, everywhere and nowhere.  

It isn’t the traveling that changes that truth, it’s the horrible hands of fate, forgetting the “rules” of being a woman alone that apply in Des Moines or Demascus, misreading cues, ignoring your intuition, or just plain bad luck of stepping into the wrong place at the wrong time.

I strongly suggest that any woman who wishes to travel alone reads The Gift of Fear. Author, Gavin De Becker, examined hundreds of violent attacks against women and found that the single best defense mechanism we each have is our intuition.  Honed for thousands of years our primal survival instinct tells us how to interact, who to trust, and how to respond when we find ourselves in harm’s way.

Years ago, as a victim’s advocate who was called to the scene of a number of sexual assaults, I always found Gavin’s findings to hold true.  The victims always had some statement indicating dis-ease – with a person, a situation, or the way someone had disregarded their earlier barriers – that set off their intuition, but they chose to silence that voice in favor of being polite or “not appearing racist” or thinking that they were “being silly”.

For me, when I travel alone, I’m rude if I need to be.  I don’t feel compelled to politely answer questions about where I’m going or with whom I’m travelling.  I don’t smile without purpose just because I make eye contact.  I don’t chat up strangers or respond to their chattiness without first evaluating my threat levels.

Have I occasionally been socially pressured, or situationally pressured into making choices I’d rather not have? Yes!  And, after the fact, I always kick myself for ignoring my inner voice. That voice was designed to keep me from being eaten by a mastodon, or raped by Ted Bundy, and I should view that voice as my most precious travel companion. But, she’s getting louder with every trip I take, and I’m getting more attuned to her importance.

Knowing that I can rely on my intuition in some circumstances, does not mean that I ignore the truth of the horrible acts that have been perpetuated against female travelers who just had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and experiencing the lightening strike that can be fate.  One quick Google search turns up reports of endless counts of violence against female travelers, with and without male companions.

“A 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang-raped [in Paharganj, New Dehli] after she got lost and asked a group of men for directions back to her hotel, police said. The attackers … dragged her to an isolated spot, stole her iPad and cash and held her hostage for more than three hours. Six of the men raped her.”

“On Jan. 3, a Polish tourist was allegedly drugged and raped by a taxi driver near a main railway station [in New Dehli]”.

“In July, an American tourist was gang-raped in the tourist town of Manali in the state of Himachal Pradesh [India].”

But, the problem isn’t just in India.  Last year when I spent time in Bali, a male friend jokingly reduced the threats of violence against women traveling in that area by saying that I would be completely safe because I was a “white woman, in Bali”.  He ignorantly forgot the world headlines last year when a serial rapist targeting the peaceful towns of Ubud, and the 20-something party destination of Kuta, attacked an Australian woman in her villa while seven family members slept nearby.

“A serial rapist is believed to be behind a terrifying attack on a 28-year-old Australian woman in Bali. The woman … had a knife held to her throat during the assault … while seven other members of her family, including children, slept nearby in the property.”

Stories like this permeate our travel consciousness, and each time we hear them, at the back of our mind we judge the traveler:  “Where were you? Why would you go there? Who were you with?” 

But, just as often these stories take place when the woman is traveling with her male companion. In South Africa a couple was kidnapped at a highly traveled picnicking spot, they were held for 14 hours, and she was raped repeatedly while men from local villages watched and taunted the couple and cheered on their assailants.

The stories are terrifying, but they’re also exceptionally rare. Which is why they make international headlines.  Just as one wouldn’t refuse to leave the country due to the likelihood of lightening storms, so to should we refuse to be limited to certain segments of the world, and only travel with male companions, due to the likelihood of a lightening strikes of a different type.  Yet that’s what people want.  They want their women – sisters, mothers, girlfriends, and daughters – safe, and to them, safe means home.

Women’s Travel Fest, held in March of 2014 was dedicated to the question of “How can women safely see the world?” And featured travel journalist Samantha Brown, and journalist Sarah Shourd who was held captive for 410 days in Iran with a friend and her now husband, among others. The conference discussed women’s travel openly and honestly, touching upon everything from traveling as a solo female in the middle east, to traveling with kids, and plotting a female-friendly itinerary.

But, women’s safely is about more than just conferences and catchy YouTube “Tips” videos, it’s about being safe in our own homes first. The truth of sexual assault is that most women who are assaulted encounter the violation not in some remote jungle in a far away country, but in their own home town, by a person they know, and maybe even trust. I live in a first world country, with first world ideals about the treatment of women, and a world-class legal system, and even here women are not well protected from assault. So, why would I allow the potential risk to keep me within the unsafe “safety” zone?

Instead of expecting women to timidly tiptoe around the world through safe tour bus caravans of Mid-Western travelers on July holidays to the United Kingdom, we should begin by addressing these violations in a real and meaningful way in our own country – longer sentencing, faster processing of rape kits, better trauma care during the medical evaluation process, and believing the victim

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Trading Gifts for Experiences

I can count the number of people I can tolerate for a 7+ day stretch on one hand, using one address, and the status of two members in that exclusive club is dubious at any given moment1. Add to that list the variable that is a 500 square foot hotel room and/or 250 square foot bunk aboard a floating vessle and my tolerance, even at the best of times, becomes rather questionable. But, I recognize this is my curmudgeonly deficit, and not their causing. Plus, as easily annoyed as I can be by travel companions, my work causes me to travel often enough that it is expected a few bones of “travel-perk-kick-backs” will be thrown their way, by means of a luxury vacation for four to enjoy pre-scheduled family fun, gluttonous indulgence in the finest sugars throughout the world, and room service, at all hours, by starched attendants who respond eagerly to our thank you’s with “It’s a pleasure.”

All these elements in mind, it is decided!  Rather than a gluttony of gifts and frenetic holiday parties, our family of four will depart the cold winters of Utah this December to set out on a 16 day adventure throughout the Mediterranean, by air, sea, and rail.

Cinque Terre

In 2009 the DH and I took an 11 day journey through Italy – Venice to Vernazza, Rome to Bologna, and it was delightful.  We relaxed, we rushed, we learned, we vegged, and we marvelled, then we marvelled some more, then we ordered cappuccino, gellato, and “una caraffa di vino rosso della casa, per favore” and we discussed how wonderful it would be to bring our two boys back, to experience it all, together.

But, boys grow, and schedules collide, and suddenly we found ourselves at that moment where making this trip happen could become a serious challenge unless we undertook the endeavor before baseball practice, science fairs, and “participation points” began to truly dictate our schedules.  Plus, year after year during the Christmas morning gift orgy that takes place on the floor of our living room we comment that there must be a better way to celebrate the holiday as a family, reflecting in our appreciation and abundance, rather than growing it. So, it was proposed:

“This year, we’re taking Christmas off!  Instead of stuff, we’re going to experience the world.”

There were grumbles, there were plaintiff whines, there were melancholic wales about new iPods, and peanut brittle, and the fragrance of pine wafting through the house (that one coming from me in a moment of self-doubt).  But, we held firm.  The best of Christmas can be found anywhere, but one more electronic gadget brought into our house might officially push our sons past the breaking point, and turn them into the weebles displayed on Wall-E.  So, we held firm – a Christmas vacation it will be.

The destination: Italy, Greece, and Turkey
The date: December 12 – January 28
The details: Stay tuned

Related Articles

1. To Italy with Your Own Mob (Star Tribune)
2. Burano and Torcello (Sweet Miel)
3. Cruising with Kids (Tbird’s Travel Blog)
4. Essential Travel Gear for Families (Kids Are a Trip)

1. Said, of course, in the most loving way in a moment when the aforementioned members are not currently roughhousing, whining, demanding, or playing “gimme’s” at the grocery store.

Fine Dining at a Vegas Buffet

For Mother’s Day, I choose the time-honored tradition of leaving my children at home with Grandma and hitting Las Vegas, which, of course, includes a trip to the omnipresent buffets.

This year’s choice, Bacchanal at Caesar’s Palace. Where for $45 one is given the opportunity to gorge on 500 small plate choices, a carving station, dim sum, sushi, breakfast classics, and of course – prime rib and crab legs.

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But this year, we’re doing it differently.  We’ve challenged each other to make the non-buffet, buffet. The dear husband and I will be taking turns creating a 21 course masterpiece, or beautifully plated and served breakfast (and not so breakfast delicacies).  The challenge, each of us is given a brief description and takes turns plating and bringing back to our den of gluttony (aka table) a lovely serving of the topic assigned.

Our Mother’s Day 21 course tasting menu:

  1. Fresh juices, fruit, honey & cheeses
  2. Antipasto/Charcuterie
  3. Amuse bouche – Black velvet pancakes & bacon
  4. Amuse bouche – Soufflé and breakfast meats
  5. Sushi, Pho, & Miso soup
  6. Salad & Fresh Vegetables
  7. Shellfish & Ceviche
  8. Soup and Breads
  9. Street Tacos & Mexican tastes
  10. Pasta
  11. Intermezzo (Gelato)
  12. Omelet & breakfast staples
  13. Assorted salads of Watermelon, mozzarella, tomato, and roasted beets
  14. The beef course with corn, carrots,  mashed potatoes & gravy
  15. Dim sum
  16. Fried & American Junk food: sliders, fries, tater tots, & mac & cheese
  17. Tapas
  18. Cookies & Cheese
  19. Cakes & Pies
  20. Ice cream, petit four & fresh juices
  21. Candy

I’d say we’re classing it up, except one can’t really call a three-hour champagne and calorie binge classy

The Ten Types of Travel Everyone Should Experience

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.” 

– Hans Christian Andersen

As we move through our lives, if we’re lucky, we’ll experience a variety of different adventures that take us away from home.  Some of them will break your heart to leave, and some will bring that moment where, in the words of Erma Bombeck, “You know it’s time to go home when you start to look like your passport photo.”

I recently read a Buzzfeed article on the 18 different types of travelers, and it got me thinking of all the different types of travel one can (and should) experience in their life – and how fortunate I have been to experience a glimpse of them all.

My list of the ten types of travel everyone should experience:

1. The Trek – Anyone who knows me would know that I am a “great indoorsman”.  I love a great meal, a lovely lobby, a lush bed, and a nicely curated museum.  But, growing up in the Western US, one is also expected to get out every now and again to experience America’s treasures, our National Parks.

About five years ago, after much cajoling, my dear husband got me to acquiesce to a two-day, 16-mile backpacking trek down the Virgin River, through Zion National Park.  This is not a simple stroll and an overnight camp.  This is a journey that requires almost constant maneuvering through rushing river waters, shimmying down slippery red rock embankments, and a number of passages where you take off your pack and carry it over your head as frigid emerald waters creep up past your armpits and loose river boulders threaten to turn your ankle with every step. It also opened eyes to the complete serenity of being alone. Miles went by where we didn’t see another person, and the sounds of rushing water made conversation impossible during some passages.

I gained a Zen in that trek that I have never experienced before, a oneness with nature that my husband had known and enjoyed for years, but I had never quite understood. When the journey was concluding and we lumbered past the day trippers who’d hiked two miles up river for the “easy” experience, I also basked in the exhaustion of accomplishment, and felt like quite the badass.

2. The Business Trip – This one gets old, fast, but those who’ve never done it seem to have the feeling that travelling for work would be glamorous and “fun”.  The first day is a little exciting, airports, expense accounts, checking in to a new (and hopefully nicer than you’d splurge for) hotel, ordering up room service, pulling out your laptop for a late night cram session.  Then day two, and three, and loneliness set in and you realize it’s still just work … and room service never tastes as good as the food you’d make at home.

3. The Five Star Experience – Early in his career my husband worked for a big, posh company that sent key employees away on quarterly “retreats”.  The work-relevant component to the trip was lost on me, but the pre-paid five start hotel, generous airfare (read first class) allowance, and $500 per day per diem were not.  I enjoyed massages, shopping, and general lazing about while the Mr. attended meetings and training sessions, then we met for a luxurious dinner and didn’t even flip our eyes toward the cost of what we ordered.  He now works in public service, and the travel perks have evaporated, but it was an absolutely delightful thing to have once walked into the Fairmont Empress, Victoria, Canada with three days and $1,500 to spend on anything we wanted to do.

4. The Honeymoon – When we first married we were poor students with no time or budget for a proper honeymoon. We ended up on what we now joke was the “worst honeymoon ever”, a weekend at the Wart Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming during the off-season – which is why we got a deal on the room which enabled us to afford the trip.  Unfortunately, in the November off-season, Jackson Hole shuts down.  The weather is too cold for outdoor adventure, but too warm for snow. The shops (except for the Gap and the ubiquitous T-shirt stores) close, the restaurants are undergoing refurbishment, and the famous Cowboy Bar is empty.  So, we spent three days at the movie theater and ate Thanksgiving Dinner at the Evanston, Wyoming JB’s buffet and truck stop.

Fortunately, years later we were able to take a beautiful week-long vacation to the Whitehouse Sandals in southern Jamaica.  We cashed in our frequent flier miles for first class tickets, planted our butts on posh lounging chairs, read on the beach, had leisurely mimosa breakfasts, and lazed away the days reconnecting with each other.  There really is something to the lazy romantic getaway that can recharge a relationship even more than a grand voyage through the most romantic streets of Venice.

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5. Living Cheap in the Third World – A year ago I fulfilled a life long bucket list item and traveled to Indonesia to volunteer at a small children’s charity in the hills above Bali. The children were delightful, the sleeping accommodations sent me home wondering if I had bed bugs, and the experience opened my eyes and changed my perspective more than any trip I’d ever taken.  I saw Australian spring-breakers behaving like disgusting animals, 80-year-old Balinese women hauling wheelbarrows full of heavy bricks, third world prostitution, a beautiful cremation ceremony in Ubud, and spent my thirty-fifth birthday surrounded by citizens of the world.  And, heading through customs on the way home the agent looked at my passport and then at me and asked, “What happened to you?” … apparently my passport photo looked BETTER than the real thing, definitely time to go home.

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6. It All Goes Wrong, and That’s Okay – A recent business trip when my luggage didn’t show up, strep throat in Orlando, Florida, a week in the Intensive Care Unit requiring a complete rerouting of a trip to Italy.  I’ve experienced a bit of it all, and it all turned out okay, because I held to the mantra, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

7. The Short Term Move – The summer between my sophomore and junior year of college I moved to Burlington, Vermont.  Which, for a girl who grew up in the suburban west, was quite an eye-opening experience.  Hippies … real hippies … with dread locks, bare feet, and thick blunts hanging from their lips.  I was in mouth-agape heaven.  I bought a sarong, stopped blow drying my hair, and took to listening to Phish with the best of them (though I never quite understood the point).  At the end of the summer I was smarter, less sheltered, and ready for the familiar – most especially my familiar self. I’d also gained five pounds of Ben and Jerry’s and vegan lasagna, and learned that the theory that Patchouli replaces deodorant is incorrect, my mother sent me to the shower immediately upon entering the house.

8. The History and Culture Tour – In college I spent two weeks wandering through Europe and saw a little bit of not much, but I ate well and wandered the beautiful streets of Brugges, Saint-Michel, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. I didn’t go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, wander the Rijksmuseum, or open my eyes to anything more than the deliciousness of the street waffle.

Then, in 2009 I took a two-week journey through Italy with my dear husband and his family. We visited Florence, Bologna, Cinque Terre, Rome, Sienna, and Venice.  We saw cathedrals, canals, museums, famous statues, and licked gelato in every beautiful piazza we passed. We learned, we laughed, and we loved… and of course, it being Italy, we ate.  And, I can’t wait to repeat the trip with an adventure along the Danube next year.

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9. The Metropolitan Weekend – New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Vancouver, San Francisco are all perfect locations for a weekend getaway of food, museums, theater, and that relaxed feeling that comes with having nowhere to go and everything to do. It’s tempting to always plan the “big” trip, but my husband continues to remind me that a few small trips to great locations can be just as relaxing, and gives us more overall travel each year.

10. The Staycation – Sometimes, it’s just about reconnecting with your own life, taking a few days off to clean out the closets, visit local attractions, sleep in, and watch terrible day time television can be an incredibly re-energizing.