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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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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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.

Local Currency

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I don’t speak French, Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic – but I know a handful of insults in each. My map-reading skills leave much to be desired, and I’ll only rent a car in the simplest of cities to navigate.

Instead, I rely on the navigation tools that have never lead me wrong: research, a friendly smile, and a pocketful of the local currency.

In Jakarta, Indonesia when navigating the airport shuttles became overwhelming, I hopped in a taxi and let the professional sort it out. And, thanks to my pocketful of Rupiah I didn’t have to pay the $6.00 exchange and ATM fee in order to finance the $2.00 transaction.

Street snacks, vending machines that sell wine, bathrooms, un-posted airport fees bring it on. I’ll be ready, I’m heading to the bank this morning to pick up some Turkish Lira.

Cat on a Corrugated Tin Roof

Everybody likes a vacation, but adventure is an acquired taste.

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– Courtesy, Google Images Contributor

When I told people I’d be going to a high school in Nanjing, China, an English-learning Kindergarten class near Ubud, Bali, or a wedding in Cartagena, Columbia I sometimes got a funny, “Why the hell would you want to do that?” kind of look. But, to me, I giggle inside every time I think of it.

My next trip – Istanbul and Izmir, Turkey (in just a couple days) has me giddy with travel euphoria. Eight days at the W: fashion shows, food, music, the Bazaar, the hypnotizing sound of prayer call; I will love (and hate) every second of it. There will be Asia belly, fierce hunger, awkward fiscal interactions and social obligations, getting lost, and the 40% chin quiver pre-cry. Then, there will be mouth agape, shocked, delighted, “Holy Shit! This exists!” moments.

The universe is about to rough house me with lessons from a place I’ve never been!

My Travel Items: The Holy Grail

Everyone who travels eventually finds their must-have travel items. These are mine …

Shoe Fresh Sachets

1. Dryer Sheets – I love the way dryer sheets ensure everything comes out of your suitcase smelling fresh and clean.  I use them when packing, then store my empty suitcases with a few dryer sheets tucked into their nooks and crannies so they smell clean even after a muggy trip to the tropics.  I also recently discovered Downy Unstopables for making shoe sachets.

Passport Cases

2. Passport Case – I keep my passport in my purse or day bag and travel with it at easy access when going to other countries (it’s amazing how often you need it: booking trains, checking into hotels, exchanging money).

Monogrammed Beach Bag

3. Day Bag – I use this as my airplane carry on (make sure your purse will fit inside the bag so that you have one, easy-to-carry item for the airport). My day bag becomes the beach bag, my filing cabinet, and in a pinch a pillow during long layovers in lousy airports.

4. Lounging Clothes leggings make the perfect lounging pants, they can be paired with a nice tunic to make an outfit, and they can also take you to the gym (if you get ambitious). I don’t like to fly in leggings (for airplanes I like loose-fitting clothes) but they can roll up easily and tuck in your carry on if you have a long lay over and might want to change your clothes.

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5. My Tried and True Travel Outfit

Passport Case and Travel Book

6. The Book – I always buy a book on the place I’m going.  I prefer Rick Steves Guides when available (A lifetime of watching his travel documentaries on PBS and the amazing value-adds he brought to my trip to Italy – skip the line at the Sistine Chapel, yes please – have made me a life long advocate. Plus I can hear his voice in my head when I read his travel guides and it makes me feel like I have a buddy traveling with me.)

Recessed Outlets

7. Phone Charger – this goes without saying, but it’s one of those last-in items that can result in an expensive airport purchase if you forget.  Be sure you have the right adapter (they’re expensive for what they do, and every country is unique do your research).  My tip, get the smallest adapter you can, sometimes the outlets are recessed and although you ave the right adapter, you still can’t plug in because those American-bought adapters won’t fit. It’s hard to describe, but I gave you a picture for example.

Universal Adapter

Do not buy the universal adapter, they almost never fit into outlets in airports and low-end hotels, and even in high-end hotels it’s hit and miss.

8. Carry On Essentials

  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, hair tie
  • Swimsuit or one critical wardrobe item so that even if your bags are lost your trip isn’t ruined (this has been a life saver)
  • Print outs of the hotel you’re going to first, and the name of the car service you’re using for the first stop (I book a car for the first location on international travel; it makes landing and transitioning simpler when arriving in unfamiliar places where the difference between legitimate taxis and gypsy cabs can be hard to determine – hence the gypsy cab-tastrophe that happened to me in Qingdao, China in 2011.)
  • A good book that travels well (don’t take Anna Karenina through 18 hours of travel, it’s a door stop, not a travel read)
  • A notepad

9. Local Currency – Always have at least enough $$ in the local currency of where you’re going just in case.  My just in case turned out to be the Jakarta, Indonesia airport where I had to take a taxi from one terminal to the other.  It cost about $2.00 and I would have paid $6.00 to pull money out of the ATM, then would have had a hassle getting change.

10. Print Outs of the Itinerary – Often enough I’ve loaded my luggage in the back of the taxi, climbed into the back seat, then realized the address of where I am going is sitting in my suitcase in the trunk.