Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#390 Packing It In

Before we head to Milan, I wanted to take some time to discuss packing.  Last February Julie and I attended a AAA Travel Expo.  I saw a flyer and noticed there was going to be a packing demonstration.  I think I’m a pretty good packer but am always eager to learn new tips. 

We arrived and were immediately overwhelmed with the products and services available.  We walked around and then went to the packing demo.  Anne McAlpin, a packing expert, put on the demo.  It lasted an hour and was invaluable!  She travels a lot, especially internationally, and consistently packs all her items in a carry-on bag plus one personal bag.  Amazing!  She talks about what to bring (wear items multiple times throughout your trip) and how to pack to maximize space. 

When traveling internationally, your first checked bag is free.  However, I didn’t want to risk losing my luggage on the way over.  We planned to walk to our hotels in each city (I eventually made reservations at hotels close to the train stations), and was prepared for some of the hotels to not have an elevator.  Add in cobblestone streets and having to lug a suitcase on and off a train, and I wanted to travel as light as possible.  Julie was a little more skeptical. 

After the packing demo we each ended up buying a Travelon cross-body purse and a Baggalinni tote for the plane.   (Let me just say that the AAA prices were great at the expo.  I did NOT pay $95 for the Baggalini tote.  It was more like $70.)  Both bags have so many pockets and the cross body purse's safety features are great too.  My hunt for the perfect carry-on bag was next.  I saw a few at the expo but luckily one I was initially interested in was sold out.  It had the four wheels at the bottom that you push around.  After further thought, I realized how much space you lose with those types of bags (wheels take up valuable space in the plane's overhead compartment) so switched my search to a basic rolling carry-on with two wheels.  I found it at Brenner Luggage.  I got the Mosaic two-wheel 22” carry on in platinum.  I love it.  It’s a mid-range price but I felt like it was good quality and had a suitor and other nice features.  I also like the color.  I wanted to avoid black again.  My other carry on was ok, but was pretty narrow and I couldn’t fit as much in it.  Let’s face it, when you wear a size 12 shoe, half your bag is gone after you put your shoes in there! 

Aside from the luggage and other bags, we also bought security belts for our passports and extra cash, a clothesline to hang any clothing we would wash along the way, a neck pillow, TSA luggage locks and some travel packets of Woolite. 

My next mission was to find just the right shoe.  I knew we would be walking a ton (and doing some hiking) so I wanted something that didn’t look like a sneaker but felt like a sneaker.  I don’t like to look touristy when I’m touring.  My foot size is an issue again but I found a pair of Clarks that were on sale that I really liked – the Inframe Ease in stone.  Very cushiony, waterproof, with great ventilation.  They also have a zip tie “shoestring”.  I bought these and then "stalked them online", finally finding a pair $20 cheaper.  Exchange!  Ca-ching!  My last purchase was a vest from Eddie Bauer with lots of pockets.  Layering is key when traveling light. 

Julie ended up buying a new carry-on also, and fitting it all in.  My packing list included the following basic clothing items:

Shoes – Clark’s shoes, Clark’s casual sandals, slip-on flats for evening, and rubber flip flops for wearing in the hotel room. 

Tops – we traveled in late September/early October.  Temperatures ranged from the 50s in the morning to 80s during the day.  I layered a lot.  I brought four ¾ length tops and four t-shirts, one long-sleeve dri-fit, one short-sleeve dri fit and one sport pullover. 

Bottoms – two pairs of jeans (should have brought just one), two maxi skirts (these were great for the cool mornings and also for the hot days), one knee-length skirt, one pair of shorts and one pair of workout knickers.

Coats – one rain coat and the vest I mentioned earlier. 

Scarves – three scarves.  I also ended up buying one in Venice.  Scarves are great for layering, using as a “blanket” on the plane or using as a sarong when you are wearing shorts and need to get into a church in a pinch. 

Hats – I brought one baseball hat and one wide-brimmed hat for hiking.  I am big on sunscreen and protecting my face from the sun.  Sunglasses and hats are a must. 

When deciding what clothes to pack, focus on one color scheme (black or brown) so everything goes with everything. That makes it easier to pack when all shoes go with all clothing, and all clothing is interchangeable. 

I also brought an extra empty duffel bag for bringing items back.  Make sure it's small enough to not take up much space in your luggage, but large enough to hold items you intend to buy.  I ended up putting some of my gifts and souvenirs in that bag as a carry on and I checked my luggage on the way home.  It had an expandable zipper to fit more items in there too.  It’s amazing how your clothing grows as you travel.  It’s the same stuff!  How does it take up more space? 

Anne suggesting packing toiletries in ziploc plastic bags so you can see everything.  She also suggested a hanging toiletry bag.  Most bathrooms are small and it helps to have all items in one place that you can hang from a towel rack.  I happened to have one and it worked great. 

I did a practice packing run a couple weeks before our trip to make sure everything fit.  Yes!! 

My luggage held up well on the trip and has also served me well in traveling in the good ole United States.  I carry on whenever possible now.  Not only does is save me some money, but it’s better to travel light.  As Anne says, bring half as many clothes, and twice as much money. 

Next stop (for real), Milan! 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

#389 Prelude to Italy

For several years my friend Julie and I have talked about going to Italy.  And Greece.  But mostly Italy.  Things came up, money got tight, time got away, and another year went by.  No Italy.  So last winter Julie told me, “Next year (2014) we are going to Italy.”  Ok! 
We bought books over Christmas.  We talked to friends who had been there.  We started reading the books.  So many books!   So much information!  Go here, do this, do that.  My head wanted to explode.  It’s very overwhelming!
I made notes, talked more to a gal at work and then realized I needed to start making plans.  We had settled on the dates (two weeks at the end of September) and the cities (Milan, Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence and Rome).  We culled these down from also going south to Capri, Naples and the Amalfi Coast.  That would have to wait for another trip. 
Julie and I looked at some hotels together but I took it upon myself to put an itinerary together (lifted from my friend at work).  I even tried to stay at the same hotels, but by the time I tried to book them, they were unavailable.  I found all of our hotels on 
I booked a few tours but mostly we did things on our own.  I had to book a city tour of Milan so we could see the Last Supper.  All the tickets for just the Last Supper were sold out by the time I looked (one month out).
I got everything done but it was a bit stressful.  It’s nice to plan your own trip to go where you want to go and spend the amount of time YOU want to spend, but there is something to be said about having it all planned for you.  I was super stressed out when we left.  Once we got going, I was fine.  We had a few bumps in the journey, but that makes it even more interesting, right?  My advice?  Find someone who has been where you want to go.  Pick their brain and copy their itinerary.  Don’t reinvent the wheel.  That saved me!  Also, start booking hotels as far out as you are able.  Pay attention when they say there is no transportation to the hotel.  I did and still had some issues.  Last, realize you cannot see and do everything.  Pick your highlights and enjoy it, and don’t think twice about anything you are “missing.”  Make it YOUR experience not someone else’s from a book.  They are very helpful, but that’s what they are there to do.  Help you. 
Overall, we had a fabulous trip and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Do your homework and you can make your dream trip happen.  My next posts will be city-by-city with a few pics thrown in.  I took over 1,000 so I can’t put them all in here!  Now, on to Milan! 

#388 Dress Drama and a Sprained Anke. Woo Woo Woo!

Occasionally at work we have opportunities to attend luncheons or banquets downtown.  Our office buys a table and a certain number of people can attend for free.  In the past I have attended arts luncheons, the NCAA Woman of the Year Awards banquet, and a reception/talk by Billy Jean King.  Friday, December 12, 2014, three co-workers and I attended the United Negro College Fund Masquerade Ball.  This is the seventh year for this event to raise money for UNCF scholarships.  There is a dinner, program, auction and entertainment.  Past entertainers have been Earth, Wind and Fire, Patti LaBelle and Cedric the Entertainer.  This year when the notification came out, I saw the entertainment was Jeffrey Osborne.  I know a few of his songs and thought he would be great to see live.  I emailed a couple girls in the office and we decided to go and take advantage of a free dinner and a show. 

This free event quickly produced some issues.  First, it required a formal dress.  “To the floor gowns”, per the website, and I do not own any formal gowns.  I have tons of short dresses, but none to the floor.  I had a somewhat long dress and guess what?  I gave it to Goodwill last year because I had worn it once in the past 15 years.  Sigh.  I stopped at Macy’s on my way to tennis and found that my second issue would be price.  Almost all of the gowns at Macy’s were in the $300 range.  Ouch.  I tried a few on quickly (advice – do NOT try on dresses when you are in a hurry).  One came to just above my ankles and was beautiful and fit perfect.  They gave me a 25 percent discount, but it was still pricey.  I put it on hold. 

The next night I stopped at a consignment shop near my house called reTULLEd.  Again, I was short on time (they closed at 6 p.m. and I made it there at 5:35 p.m.).  I had called ahead so they pulled a few out for me that were super long.  I tried on several and found one that was really nice.  Black, strapless, and very big and flowy on the bottom.  Price? $80.  That I can handle.  I bought it and a mask they happened to have for $8.  Done!  I wish I had gone back on a Saturday to look at a more leisurely pace, but since I needed this one altered I had to act fast.  The next day I took it to get altered.  My great price dress required $75 worth of taking in.  It was still way below the $300 dresses so I shouldn’t complain (more advice – call ahead to ask an approximate cost for alterations.  Also, take the time to try on lots of dresses and get the one that fits best on the front end). 

I picked the dress up at lunch Thursday and when I tried it on, the top part was a little “off”.  She sewed cups in it so I didn’t have to wear a bra.  Problem was, the cups she used were too large circumference-wise.  When the dress was hanging, the top looked fine.  When I put the dress on and the waist was zipped, the cups pushed up and you could see the black lining poking up a bit.  It was more noticeable when I got it home after work and tried to adjust it more, but by that time I had no time to fix it.  Most people wouldn’t notice it anyway. 

Meanwhile, one of my co-workers had some dress drama of her own.  She found a pretty dress online at Nordstrom Rack for $42, but it was scheduled to arrive Friday.  The day of the dinner.  She thought it would come sooner and didn’t pay extra for express shipping.  As a backup, she found a navy bridesmaid dress at Goodwill for $5.  It was pretty, but not as nice as the one she’d ordered.  All day Friday we kept asking if she had any updates on her dress.  No.  We later found out they had sent it to the wrong address (she had it sent to work) so it ended up arriving the following Tuesday.  Of my two remaining co-workers, one had a long dress and one borrowed one.  Luckeee! 

Dress drama behind us, it was time for the ball!  But wait.  During my Friday morning workout I twisted my ankle doing agility drills.  Yow!  It swelled a little but I was able to walk on it without too much pain.  It did hurt more later in the day but I wasn’t going to let a little sprained ankle jeopardize my dancing!  

Ok, NOW we were ready for the ball.  As we arrived I noticed that a handful of women wore shorter dresses but I am glad I had a long gown.  I follow the rules!  The event was fun (long, but fun) and our time had come to see Jeffrey.  He sounded great and put on a great show.  He’s 66 and super energetic.  He never stood still!  I couldn’t get a good photo because he moved around too much.  He played for an hour-and-a-half.  Toward the end he played, “You Should Be Mine” or the “Woo Woo Song”.  He came down onto the dance floor and gave the microphone to people in the crowd for them to sing, “Can you woo woo woo?”  He started with a few men who were really good and then moved on to some women, who were REALLY good.  As he moved around the floor, the four of us kept backing away from him.  Then he looked around and said, “We need some white people!”  There were not many white people there in the first place, but fewer left out on the dance floor late into the evening.  We were it!  He walked toward us and I attempted to shrink so he wouldn’t see me.  Nice try.  Here he came.  I told him I would sing if I could touch his bicep (he’s pretty buff) and he obliged.  We four ended up singing it together.  I couldn’t hear us so hopefully we sounded ok.  I know we weren’t as good as the others but it was so fun!  We got to sing “Woo woo woo” with Jeffrey Osborne! 

I am now set with a formal dress for any further events.  I highly recommend reTULLEd.  They have formal and shorter fancy dresses.  They also have more casual clothes and coats.  Their prices and selection are great.  They are so helpful and when I returned recently with a friend, they remembered my name.  It’s the little things that make a big difference.  Woo woo woo!!!