The Great Italy Adventure of 2019 - Tuscany

If I could visit Italy once a year it would be here.

Every July there is a Jazz and Wine festival but you never know the dates until 30 days before. So, you have to book a trip and remain flexible with your itinerary until you know the dates, and then race to book everything around it.

I have been here so many times it's a little ridiculous. I have fallen in love with Roberto and Lucilla, our hosts. They are like family. They have a beautiful 6-room villa in the heart of the historical center of the city. When we left, Robert said, "I almost feel guilty charging you to stay here." As a gift, his wife packed us 1.5 liters of freshly made olive oil and a jar of her homemade marmalade to take home. She said the Italians always say, "New olive oil, old wine."

The other perfect person of Tuscany is Luciano. He owns a restaurant and his wife (or whomever runs the kitchen) makes the most beautiful handmade pasta. It's called "pinci" and you pinch a little pasta dough and and hand roll it to make thick, delicious noodles.

Then there is the wine. Let's just say we "tasted" a lot of it, and sent home two cases of the best wine in the world, at least to us (and all of the world top wine reviewers).


The Great Italy Adventure of 2019 - Rome

Join us for a 20-hour road trip from Rome to Milan with awesome stops in between! First stop, Hotel Lord Byron in Rome, and a visit to the Borghese gardens and museum. The hotel is one of my favorites in Rome - it is close enough to trek to the center of Rome, and yet perched on a hill, in the beautiful neighboring Borghese Villa and Gardens. It's less expensive than staying in downtown Rome, and my favorite question they ask when you book a room is, "Madam, may I offer a car to pick you up at the airport?" Why, yes you may!

We had only one full day in Rome, and decided to visit the Galleria Borghese.

I purchased two tickets in advance which was really smart. It included a guided tour which was two hours of perfection. Our guide highlighted the best artists in the museum. Above is a marble sculpture by Canova that was commissioned by Camillo Borghese, the husband of Pauline Bonaparte, featured here. It was highly unconventional for a woman of such rank and social importance to be depicted nude, but Pauline was not conventional in any sense. The most amazing part of the sculpture was she seemed to be reclining on a very soft feather bed. How do you make marble look so soft? Hers’s another impressive sculpture we saw  by Bernini showing the softness of flesh. Mind boggling.

Here’s a close up of the backside of this sculpture:

The story of this sculpture was anything but soft - entitled the Rape of Prosperina - depicting Prosperina being abducted by the god Pluto and taken to the underworld. Does this look like marble or flesh? My mind was blown.

The next morning we rented a 5-speed Lancia and headed to Tuscany.


A Love-Hate Relationship with Frontier Airlines

(Less Love, More Hate)

Gotta love the low fares and the cute little animal painted on the tail. But there's nothing else to love. In an effort to counterbalance the low fare business model, they nickel and dime you for everything, and I mean everything - there's a charge for "Water, no ice." An ancillary "benefit" of this no frills model is terrible customer service. They've built a team of luggage police without smiles. If you don't have the words "carry on" printed on your boarding pass (i.e. you failed to checkin online), your carry on luggage will cost you about $25, in addition to the fee you already paid to check your luggage. Before you are allowed to board the plane you need to stuff your carry on in their box in the pre-boarding area. If it doesn't fit, they charge you even more for "oversized" carry on.

Once you've boarded, they tease you with your very own portable TV already tuned into your favorite channels, that you can't watch unless you swipe your credit card. (Try explaining that to your six-year-old). So you reach for their magazine and there isn't one. I was seriously surprised when they let me use the toilet without a charge.

If all that doesn't convince you to choose another airline, their frequent flyer plan will. Your top award levels are "Summit" and "Ascent" and that might get you a middle seat in the first few rows with 5 extra inches and free water. That's not saying much when you see the coach seats without an inch to spare. And, there's no first class. I've declared myself a "Sea Level" flyer on my short stint with Frontier, and would rather be grounded than fly with them again.


Risky Business: How safe are you in a budget hotel room?

Safety is sometimes overlooked when we travel on a budget.  Lately, with the crappy economy, we can be more concerned with price than the value of our life or belongings.  But safety should be your most important consideration when traveling.  What does your budget hotel's safety scorecard look like?

TREKTIP #1: Only stay in a hotel or motel with electronic locks on all the rooms.

Give your hotel 10 points for having electronic locks. The beauty of the electronic keycard systems, is they automatically re-key the room every time it is rented, and the old keycards automatically expire at the programmed checkout time.  Even if the guest checks out early and takes the key with her, as soon as a new keycard is used to enter, the old keycard is automatically disabled.  In addition, a room lock can be "audited" giving a readout of every person who swiped a keycard.  The front desk should keep a record of keycards issued to staff, identifying each staff member, and keep its master keycards under control.

Any hotel with the old regular keys in doorknobs definitely does not have your safety in mind.  If you absolutely MUST stay at a hotel with what is sometimes affectionately referred to as "European" keys, ask about their "key control" system.  If a guest fails to return a key to the front desk, then the lock should be re-keyed, every time.  Seldom do hotels re-key as often as they should.  In fact, I have heard of people "selling" non-returned keys on the street, whereby the "fake guest" sneaks in and stays in an empty room without paying the hotelier.  What are the chances of that room having you in it when the fake guest enters?  If you are renting a room with the old doorknobs and keys, be sure to inspect your room for intruders each time you enter, check the bathroom, around furniture, etc., and then always deadbolt the door while you are in it.  If the doors have no deadbolts, fuggedaboudit.

Other safety considerations include video surveillance systems, secured perimeter, well-lighted parking and public areas, and a 24-hour front desk.  If there are no in-room safes, take your valuables with you, or leave it behind the front desk while you are gone.

Safe travels!


Get Your Frequent Travel On: Secrets of a Frequent Flyer Revealed

You know those "elite" flyers who appear from nowhere and get to board before everyone else? And then a half hour later when you board the plane, you see them all smug in there cushy first class seat sipping champagne? Don't you envy them? They must be wealthy or famous ot something because first class seats cost a fortune!

Please don't hate me because I am one of those people. I am an ordinary person, just like you, who used to sit around the gate, waiting for that last call to board. "ZONE 6 can board now." You know the drill. No more space for your carry-on. Squishing your normal sized ass into a half-assed size seat.

How come I get to hang out in the exclusive Club Lounge, using their pristine bathrooms, eating their free food and drinking their cocktails before pre-boarding into a first class seat, all for the lowest fare price?
  • TrekSecret #1:  Get Hitched to a Single Airline
Seriously: Marry a single airline, and never cheat.  (Or, only cheat with a codeshare partner). Every trip you take, pleasure or business, use a single airline. Get your frequent flyer number, get your kids a frequent flyer number, and never travel with any other airline. Your goal is to rack up as many miles as possible. Choose your airline carefully. Review and compare all the benefits of their elite status, and frequent flyer miles trade-in value. Some airlines are more generous than others. 
  • TrekSecret #2:  Use Your Airline's Credit Card For Every Single Purchase You Make
Every single purchase you make goes on your airline's credit card. Don't get just any "miles" card. You need to get your airline's card - you know, the one you are now married to! Use it when you go grocery shopping, buy gas, pay your taxes, go holiday shopping. EVERY SINGLE PURCHASE. This is the only way to rack up miles for cashing in later on some fabulous trip.
  • TrekSecret #3:  Fly Often Enough to Achieve Elite Status
You have to be a frequent flyer in order to earn a certain elite status with your airline. This won't work for you if you take one pleasure trip per year. To reach the upper echelon of travelers, you have to be a frequent flyer, and again, rack up miles "actually flown" or rack up "legs." Your goal is to get elite status, even at the lowest level. To qualify for my airline, I need to either fly 25,000 actual miles, or take 30 legs.  For a plan like this, you need only fly 6-8 trips per year to qualify. Once you have elite status, you are entitled to automatic upgrades to first class for some airlines. I sit in first class often, and have never paid a first class fare. If I am not in first class, I am in a spacious exit row.
  • TrekSecret #4:  Once You Achieve Elite Status, Buy a Discounted Club Membership
The best relatively small purchase I ever made was buying a club membership pass. It cost a little over $300 for the year and it has paid for itself ten times over. Inside the club you have free access to the internet, superb bathroom facilities, free food and free non-alcoholic drinks. Plus, you receive premium "gate" service without having to go to the gate. You have access to the monitors inside the club and usually 2 or 3 attendants at your service - to check on your gate and any delays. In addition, if you have a delay or are in need of customer service, you can take care of all your concerns right there. They can print your boarding pass, change your seating or get you on another flight if yours is delayed. Plus they will check often for availability of your free upgrade!
  • TrekSecret #5: Utilize All the Benefits Available, to the Max!
Cash in your miles every year, even though it is a pain. Generally, you have to purchase a flight using your miles eight months in advance. But hey, it's free, and you can go anywhere in the contiguous U.S. Why not take a trip to the coast for rest and relaxation! Nothing feels better than taking a "free" trip. Go to Club every chance you get and relax in their luxurious accommodations and refresh yourself before your next flight. Take the free upgrade to first class every time, and leave your traveling partner in coach. After all, you earned it!


Traveling Can Make You Rich

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sending my high school age daughter to Thailand during a summer. But it happened. Is she that unique in her quest for travel to far away places, I wonder?

After some very diligent research, she decided upon Rustic Pathways, a travel program largely oriented around community service trips in the east. She knew friends with positive past experiences in the program, and I was impressed with the outfit. Overall, Rustic Pathways is very organized and communicates efficiently. They are thorough in trip planning, and have a huge variety of trips in exotic and far away locations. All of the trips sound interesting, and it is difficult to decide which excursion to take! There is an excellent online and print catalog. The only downside is: the trips are not cheap!
  • TREKTIP: Allow your child to plan a trip and do the research. Consider having your child save up and pay for most of a trip. This way the value is most appreciated!
J decided to go on the most extreme and difficult trip. (That's my daughter!) She chose Come with Nothing, Go Home Rich. It's a community service trip to northern Thailand where the students can only pack one outfit and toiletries. (When I dropped J at LAX, her bag for a one-month trip only weighed a record breaking 6.5 pounds!) They purchase everything they need locally, live a week at a time in 3 remote villages, in the villagers' homes. They experience cultural immersion, eat authentic food, sleep on the floor, use "squat" toilets, shower with cold water in a bucket, and participate in village activities. The most rewarding aspect is giving the village what it needs in terms of community service. One village required a brick wall built around their school. Another required a 2 kilometer ditch dug and PVC piping laid to bring water to the village. Upon leaving the village, the ceremonious gratitude the villagers show the group is the ultimate gift.

She and her fellow travelers experienced intense bonding, earned friends for a lifetime, and came away with the lessons of life that can't be taught at home or in the classroom. Now that's rich!


Don't Know Whether You're Coming or Going? Cure for Frequent Traveler's Dementia

Do you travel so often that sometimes you forget whether you are coming or going? Literally? This happened to me, and made me take note of the direction my life was going in general.

I frequently travel the same route, back and forth to my business. Out of Santa Barbara (SBA), stopover in Phoenix (PHX), onto Yuma (YUM). Then out of YUM, stopover in PHX, onto SBA. I usually travel roundtrip within 2 days and go monthly. It's a lot of back and forth. But I have my routine down to a science. Well, nearly.

  • TREKTIP: Don't worry, frequent travel can cause confusion. Before you catch a connecting flight, make a quick mental note of your final destination.

One early morning, I started from Santa Barbara and landed in Phoenix, and as usual, I checked the monitors for my next gate. I looked on the monitor for the next flight to Santa Barbara, when I should have been going onto Yuma. I had just arrived from Santa Barbara! I did not realize it at the time - I was just following my regular routine. So, I march myself over the gate for the flight from PHX back to SBA, and sat there - for about an hour, reading the paper, relaxing, drinking coffee. It's like the accidental elevator ride - you mean to get on the UP elevator, but instead you go DOWN, and then have to go back UP again.

After about an hour, I look up and realize I am the only one at the gate. The Santa Barbara flight had changed gates. A woman behind the counter called over to me and asked if I was headed to Santa Barbara. I replied, "No, Yuma." And the light bulb went on! Oh....my.....god. I had been waiting at the WRONG GATE for the WRONG DESTINATION for an hour. Did I have dementia? Early onset of Alzheimer's? What was wrong with me???????

As it turned out, I almost missed my connecting flight to Yuma. I ran from gate B22 to B1 and caught it just in time.

I thought about this incident for a long time - contemplating what is wrong with my life, such that I don't know whether I am coming or going? I decided that I just needed to pay more attention, be more zen-like, stay in the present and not mindlessly meander through a "routine." Now, every time I land in PHX, I take note of where I am and where I am going. TREKTHERAPY DOSE: As a matter of fact, no matter what city we are in, let's take note every morning: Where are we today, and where are we headed?


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