Monday, August 18, 2014

Out of the Dungeon: At Houston Intercontinental Airport

After a few recent layovers at Houston Intercontinental Airport and I realize I have to give that airport kudos.  Normally if you're catching a flight on a small regional airline, your find yourself leaving the bright and bustling area of the main terminal and trudging down to the dimly lit, low ceiling'd dungeon of the airport where your only options for food are hotdog rejects from 7-11 and stale coffee.

Its truly depressing. You're about to get on a cramped plane with no hopes of an upgrade to first class, because there is no first class. If you're lucky you have a flight attendant on the plane  If you're lucky you have a bathroom on the plane. If your lucky, turbulence has taken the day off. You're already not feeling too positive about the experience - then you end up on airport hell.

Well not in Houston.

Houston Intercontinental Airport - Terminal B

In United's Terminal B where you catch many connecting flights on smaller planes, you still get the benefit of a brightly lit, window filled terminal.  The gates are all grouped close together, but the waiting area has large screens with clearly labeled boarding information.  There are multiple quality food options to chose from, a pleasant bar area, duty free shopping and tons of seating, many of which have access electrical plugs and charging stations.  This is definitely a change for the better compared to other airports.

Pull up a cherry red chair and have a quick pre-flight drink

Granted, once your flight is called, you do still have to descend into the bowels of the airport - low ceilings and no bathrooms - but you're time there is short as you're just passing through to an airplane that also may have...well, low ceilings and no bathrooms.  The flight may still be lousy, but at least the hour leading up to it was surprisingly pleasant.  Well done, Houston!

Now, about the non stop country music you're playing....

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Would You Wear That?

If you spend enough time in airports you see some some interesting outfit choices. From the person who avoids extra baggage fees by wearing half their wardrobe to the one who is clearly going directly from the airplane to the night club.  You see it all.  On my most recent trip from LA to Atlanta via Houston, I saw enough poor traveling outfit choices that I thought I'd do a quick Public Service Announcement on what not to where on a flight.

1.  Short Shorts - even if your destination is some fabulously warm beach location, I cannot for the life of me figure out why someone would want to wear really short shorts on a plane. Think about it. Do you want that much of your skin touching that often soiled, rarely cleaned airline seat fabric?  I thought not. Secondly, there is never any guarantee of how warm it will be in the terminal or on the plane. You get on a flight where they've jacked up the air conditioning and you're faced with a germ cocoon of the airline seat and the very questionable airline blanket. And guys, lest you think this one is just for the ladies, I've seen enough guys don short shorts on flights to fill a 1970's NBA team.

2.  High Heels - This is not a 1950's horror movie.  You do not want to find yourself running from terminal to gate in a flimsy pair of high heels.  You will trip, you will fall and there will not be a lumbering zombie behind you to quietly put you out of your misery. I used to travel weekly for business and I understand that sometimes you are coming to the airport directly from a formal business meeting, but try to plan ahead and throw a pair of flats in your bag.  Your ankles will thank you.

3. Tons of Makeup - Although a ton of make up is rarely a good look, this is especially applicable to red-eye flights.  Ever go out for a night at the club only to come home and fall asleep without washing your face?  How did you look that next morning? Not pretty, huh?  That is not the look you want when you exit the plane in the morning.  I'm not saying don't wear anything on your face, but just tone it down a bit.

4. Pajamas - Unless you are under the age of 6 or flying international first class, there's really no excuse for wearing pajamas on a flight.  For children, yes, by all means dress them so they think they are about to go to sleep in the hopes that they actually will. And if you've purchased a first class ticket and they provide pajamas, then please enjoy the luxury. But note that no one in first class actually boards or deplanes wearing them.  

5. All White Outfits - Clearly I take issue with the suspect cleanliness on airplanes, but that really applies to the whole airport. Whether its the grimy seat in the terminal waiting area, or even your own self inflected potential mess as you try to balance your roll aboard, and dig for your ID at security check all while juggling you Grande Mocha Latte - at some point you're bound to get an all white outfit dirty. Why bother. Save that look for a sunny day at the beach.

Airline Travel: What Not to Wear

OK. That's my little rant for the week.  If you have any other airport fashion disasters I didn't think of, please do share with a comment below.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Travel Expert's Travel Fail's confession time.

I have hesitated in writing this post for a few weeks now because it pains me to admit to a huge travel fail.  And I have no one to blame for it by me.  While I'd rather keep this embarrassing admission to myself, I'll share it with you all so you, my fabulous readers, so can learn from my mistake.  Yes, travel experts to sometime make big travel mistakes. 

So what happened?  

A few weeks ago, in the heart of the World Cup excitement, I began to really regret the fact that I had not figured out a way to get to Brazil while they were hosting one of the biggest sporting events on the calendar.  I had been talking about going to World Cup 2014 for years, and now that it was finally here, I found myself sitting in Los Angeles. I figured there had to be a way for me to get down there.  I had a place to stay with friends in Rio, an extra day off of work for the Fourth of July holiday...all that was left was the little matter of a plane ticket.  

So I reached out to friends, called in a few favors and got myself on a standby list for a flight to Rio.  It was completely a last minute plan thrown together in less than 24 hours.  It may sound crazy, but it works for me.  That's how I like to travel: few plans, high excitement.  I was on a complete adrenalin high as I threw as many sun dresses, sandals and bikinis in my bag as I could and ran down the stairs to meet my taxi to go to LAX.

Of course I was running a late for my flight, but luckily the taxi driver saw the nervousness on my face and he drove like a champion through the 405 traffic.  At one point I tweeted this from the backseat of the cab:

My cab driver just pulled an a*hole, cut em off move to get me to the airport in time ...and I love him for it!

I get to the airport not long before my flight began boarding, but with enough time so I wasn't panicked.  Backpack and carry on in hand, I approach the ticket counter to get my standby boarding pass.  The automated machine asked for my passport which I scanned. All's good. Now I just have to wait for an agent to approve my Brazilian Visa and I am on my way.

The agent comes over, asks for my visa, I confidently begin flipping through my passport and as I get past the first few pages, my heart begins to sink.  I have a Brazilian visa, valid until June 2021 - unfortunately that visa was sitting at home in my expired passport.  Epic Fail!

Yes I have a I don't have it with me. 

The good thing about a Visa is that if they outlive the passport they are stamped in, you can still use them, so the $140 I paid for my Brazilian visa did not go to waste when my passport expired 2013.  The bad thing is you have to remember to travel with both your current and your expired passport. I was impressed that I remembered to throw my current passport in my bag during my packing frenzy.  I didn't even think about adding the expired one.  I haven't traveled to Brazil in well over a year and forgot my visa wasn't in my current passport.

So I'm staring at the ticketing agent racking my brain for a solution to this situation. I called a few friends in a panic see if any one could get to my apartment, find the old passport and get it to me in, say, 20 minutes.  When that didn't work I decided to make a heroic dash for home to see if I could get back in time to catch my flight to Houston that would then take me to Rio.  But a long taxi queue and LA holiday traffic quickly put those dreams to rest.  My last ditch effort to get to Rio for World Cup ended sadly in the back seat of a taxi cab.

Back at home, sitting on my living room couch, downtrodden and disappointed by my rookie travel mistake, only two things managed to console me.
1. the fact that the flights were quite full and I'm pretty sure the stand by gamble would not have worked for me anyway

2. Plan B - hanging out with a good friend and drowning my sorrows in delicious margaritas at one of our favorite local spots.

I may never have great stories to tell my grandkids about celebrating in the streets of Brazil during the World Cup with soccer fans from all over the world, but at least I have a hard lesson won - and advice for anyone traveling internationally.

Check your passport for your visa - if a necessary visa is in an old passport, rubber band your two passports together so you always think about bringing both. 

And for now...well, the good news is my visa is still valid for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. See you there!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Taking Stock

We're over half way there, folks!

"Where", you ask?

To 2015, of course!

To some, that's others that's welcome news. But no matter what you think of it, this year is on its downward slope. So be honest. How may of you took stock of your plans, resolutions, goals, ambitions, targets or whatever you want to call them midway through the year? From my observation, most folks are 100% gung ho with plans, vision boards, gym memberships and self help books at the beginning, but by this time of year, they are somewhere packed away with the holiday decorations.  

Well, as much as I fear it, I'm going to dust off my 2014 Travel Goals list, magically preserved by my very own blog post written back when I was feeling ambitions on January 6. Half way through the year and am I half way through my goals? I'm afraid to look.

Hm...well, after looking back on my list I can say one thing confidently....the second half of this year is going to be AMAZING! Why? Well, because I'm determined to meet at least a majority of my goals and right now I'm a sad 2 for 14. Take that down to the lowest fraction and I'm Brazil and my 2014 goals are Germany (sorry Brasil...I still have love for you!). 

Well, I'm 2 and within 2 months I will at least be to 5.  With a simple 9 to go.  Hence my prediction that the second half of 2014 will be quite a ride.  There's hope yet.  

So what goals did I achieve?...

#4 Eat at a Michelin Star restaurant 

And which ones will be in the bag within a few months?

#7 Remodel this blog - it's in progress as we speak and you should see some significant updates by August 2014.
#8 Attend a Formula 1 race in a foreign country. Singapore, here we come!
#11 I already have 1 new pin (thank you, Mexico City)...and I have no doubt I'll get at least one more with my trip to Singapore.

One I have to adjust...

#6 I'd still like a Briggs & Riley roll aboard bag, but I'll also take one from Tumi. That brand is my new obsession!

...and one I have to accept will not happen. 

#8 Even with a valiant last minute effort to get to Brazil for world cup, my plans sadly fell through. Partially because of a rookie traveler mistake on my part, which I may write about in a future post.

And a few are still just up for grabs, so wish me luck on those...Especially #14! 

So here's to the second half of the year and hitting all of my travel goals.  Have I inspired you to dust off your New Year's resolutions? Or maybe add a few more to your list? I hope so. Either way - enjoy the rest of 2014 ... I only hope it keeps getting better for all of us! 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Wandering with a Camera: New Orleans

One of my favorite things to do in a city is to walk around with little in the way of an agenda, to just take things in at a slow pace.  I spend enough of my regular days rushing from one activity to the next, so when I'm traveling to a city, whenever possible, I like to just take my time.

But as beautiful a city as New Orleans is, I didn't really have the time to just wander aimlessly. Duties as a bridesmaid kept me on my toes (not that I'm complaining -  what girl wouldn't want to hang out with her good friends eating and drinking and getting dolled up for the big event??).  And when I did have some free time to see the city, I was usually a sweaty mess and on the hunt for any assemblance of air conditioning within 10 minutes of leaving the hotel. Not a pretty picture. But - occasionally I got out of the hotel before the sun got too hot and occasionally I stayed out after the sun went down (I know - shocking) so there was a bit of time for some photos around this photogenic city.

They fit every possible New Orleans stereotype on that sign: Zydeco, Blues, Gator head, Cajun and a spicy pepper. Well done!

Just give me a balcony, a fan and a mint julep...

St. Louis cathedral just off of Jackson Square

How much is that acordeon in the window?...

Sign rarely seen in the US outside of New Orleans

Just my luck the Pharmacy Museum was closed - otherwise that Love Drawing Powder would've come home with me!

You can't take photos inside Preservation Hall, but these old posters and wooden seats just outside were a good option. 

Colorful Carnival paintings at Dookey Chase restaurant.

Late night drink at the oldest continually operated bar in the United States - Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop

Somewhere underneath that powdered sugar is a delicious beignet. 

And crawdads for the post-wedding lunch. Mmm mmm good.

In case you wondered, the devil is alive and well on Bourbon Street

Some hot sauces just speak for themselves

Wander down to Frenchman's Street for cool art, live music and bars.

Since no one is using them for their original purpose any more... Phone Box tables are a great idea.

Lovely spot for an outdoor wedding

Monday, June 30, 2014

Summertime in New Orleans

My first trip to New Orleans happened back in my senior year of college. The trip planning consisted of figuring out the dates for Mardi Gras, rounding up a few friends and, well...that was pretty much it.  No hotel reservations, no research on the city, no clue what we were getting into and in the end it ended up being one of my favorite adventures to date.

Since then, I've been back to New Orleans another 5 or 6 times and each trip has had it's ups (great food, non-stop nightlife, beautiful architecture and some fantastic cemeteries) and downs (near flood conditions, inevitable weight gain, super-sized roaches and losing friends in the Mardi Gras crowds), but over all, New Orleans is a beautiful city and I keep coming back for more.

Over the years, though, one thing I've tried to avoid is visiting that city during the summer months. The humidity I experienced in April made me realize that I had no business being there in June. But alas a dear friend and a wedding ceremony had me booking a ticket from LAX to MSY just in time for the summer solstice.

I'll admit it was hot, damn hot...and humid, but luckily they understand the benefit and medical necessity of air conditioning in most places around the French Quarter. We had an unfortunate situation where the electricity in our hotel was out for nearly 2 days and while i could't turn on a light or the TV or even take the elevator all the way to my room on the 44th floor, the room still did have air conditioning.  I'll say they had the priorities straight on that one.

While I spent the majority of this New Orleans trip with the bride and rest of the bridal party getting ready for the big day, I did have some time to run around and revisit some of my favorite areas of the city.  And got to check out some new spots as well.

A Couple of Lessons Learned from my Most Recent Visit to New Orleans:

1. Preservation Hall - a tourist destination, but not a tourist trap. It is well worth the visit. The music was great and don't despair if you only get a ticket to the standing room only section in the back. That makes it much easier to break out into a toe tapping dance, which you will want to do. And the late afternoon show is the real deal and a lot easier to get into at the last minute.

2. At Antoine's restaurant the Baked Alaska is not lit on fire...but the Cafe brulot diabolique is. Make sure to order it.

3. You can have a very enjoyable, authentic time in the French Quarter without ever stepping foot on Burbon Street.  Go once..but only once. Its enough for any one over the age of 21.

4. Somehow with the hot humid weather and no specific festival like Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest or the Essence Music Festival going on, I thought things would be a lot cheaper at this time of year. No luck. Flights, hotel rooms, attractions - apparently as busy in the summer as at any other time of the year.

5. Cafe Du Monde is best visited at 2:00 AM when the crowds have gone and a late night snack buried in powdered sugar is just what you need.

6. There are not many places where you can do it in the U.S., so go ahead and enjoy the novelty of getting to walk the streets with a drink in hand. (OK - I may have learned this lesson on previous visits as well).

7. Definitely make your way over to Frenchman's street.  A great area for live music, drinks and artwork. Definitely worth a walk or short cab ride beyond the French Quarter.

Monday, June 23, 2014

I Don't Have a Favorite Color

I don't have a favorite color - at least not any more. When I was a kid, the answer to the question "What is your favorite color" came with an easy answer. Blue.  My mom's favorite color was Red so she kind of owned that one (plus it seemed a little too bold for my budding laid back personality) but blue was a nice, safe color. One that represented the sky and the sea and one stripe in the many rainbows I used to draw.  Blue was definitely my favorite...that is until I realized there were hundreds of shades of blue. Did I like cobalt or sky blue or powder blue or just blue blue?  And then how about greens and purples and sometimes even gray and black?

And what does any of this have to do with my travel blog, you ask? Well, that question of favorite colors came up in an conversation with a graphic designer who is working on my new blog site which will launch later this summer (I can't wait!). She asked that I give her an idea of my favorite colors, fonts, quotes, images, hobbies, etc. so she can get a better idea of how to represent me on my redesigned blog....and that's where I got stuck.  

I realized I have a very hard time identifying what I consider my "favorite" anything.  I don't have a favorite color, a favorite cuisine, a favorite country or even a favorite movie. I've seen too many places, eaten too many foods, heard too many kinds of music and met too many wonderful people to ever choose a best  or favorite option.

Normally I do not feel this is a bad thing, but when it comes to developing a successful travel blogging site, I worry that it could be a problem. One thing I just can't seem to do is come up with a "niche". With thousands of travel blogs out on the internet, I'm often reminded of the importance of finding your niche, your focus so that you can draw in a loyal, likeminded audience.  But what if I just can't decide on a niche? Am I doomed to have a failing blog? 

Sure I could differentiate my blog by focusing on a specific target audience. Solo travelers?...sure.  African American travelers?...that's an option too. As is luxury travel, budget travel, adventure travel, regional travel and even travel for Capoeiristas (and if you have to ask what a capoeirista is, you're probably not in that target audience). But I feel that if I focus on any one of those things, I'll be neglecting so many other things that fascinate me about international travel. 

So at the risk of having a niche-less travel blog, I think I'll trust my graphic designer to create a blog site that will show me to be the female, solo, Black, capoeirista, luxury, occasionally budget, humorous, cubicle-escaping global traveler that I am.

All hail the versatile traveler!