What do I need to know about travelling right now?

Peggy's Cove, NS

14JUL20 – There has been a lot of great news about international travel opening up around the world. Canada is on the EU ‘safe list’. Caribbean Islands are welcoming guests from various international destinations, including Canada. Flights have resumed to many destinations, encouraging tourism, albeit on a less frequent schedule.

Beware!

There is much more to consider outside of being welcome in your destination country. Just because we are welcome, does that mean you should book the next flight out?

Travel is possible, but very risky at the moment. The Canadian Government still has the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory in place and our border with the USA is still closed. Even within Canada, our movements are restricted and quarantines are required for travel between many of our provinces.

Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Here are the top four things that you need to weigh deeply before deciding if now is the right time for you to travel:


POTENTIAL TRAVEL COMPLICATIONS

Travel as you know it, basically no longer exists. Your favourite flight routes may not be operating, or are at a much lower frequency. Masks are mandatory on most flights. New check in procedures are in place. Many international airports remain closed to international flights and are only accepting domestic arrivals. Almost everything is done contact-less, which means you’ll need to travel with a smart phone. Some destinations require you have a negative Covid test before boarding your flight. Other destinations require you to be tested on arrival. Sometimes tests are at your expense, sometimes they are free. The middle seat is blocked on some flights and on others, it is not. Every airline, hotel, tour operator and cruise line has a slightly different cancellation and change policy. It is not one size fits all.

Four complications to be prepared for:

1. Denied boarding – You get to the airport, have your temperature checked and you are denied boarding. No amount of arguing, pleading or smiling will get you on board that flight. At this point you may simply be asked to leave the airport, asked to get tested on site (if available), or you may be asked to self-isolate or quarantine.

On departure for your vacation, your flights / hotels / tours will likely all be non-refundable at this point, so you’ll also lose the money you’ve spent on your vacation. At least you’ll be in your home country if you do have Covid.

If you are denied boarding on your return to Canada though, you’ll need to be prepared for the costs of medical, accommodation, transportation and new flights from your destination depending on how long you are sick for and if it is just a fever, or a positive Covid result.

2. Testing Positive on Arrival – When you arrive in destination, you may be tested at the airport for Covid. Should you test positive, even if you are not exhibiting symptoms, you will be required to quarantine for that countries’ designated length of time. You will not be allowed to return home by flight until you have been cleared by a negative test. Depending on the country, you may be quarantined at a government facility or, you may have to find and cover the costs of quarantine on your own. This comes with exceptional difficulties of avoiding public transportation, seeking medical attention and having groceries delivered, all in another language.

3. Becoming Ill with Covid while Traveling – There’s nothing worse than enjoying a beautiful vacation for a few days and then becoming sick, be it with a cold, a stomach bug, or Covid. You’ll need to seek medical attention where you are, even if it is the tiniest of tiny towns. Medical and transportation costs will be yours to cover, as well as the loss of any pre-booked services that you won’t be able to make it to. You also have to consider that medical services may not be as reliable in another country, or if there is another outbreak in the area you are in, even the best of medical systems have become overwhelmed.

4. The dreaded Second Wave – While many countries are progressing well and some have gotten down to zero active cases, it is nearly impossible for the entire world to be rid of Covid. Because of this, as long as travel between provinces, countries and internationally continues, cases will continue to pop up. It’s just a matter of how prepared each country is to control it.

If you are traveling in the next few months, you have to be prepared for the dreaded Second Wave. It is possible that you may be enjoying your vacation with not a care in the world, taking all of the pertinent precautions and then within a day (or days), the world could be shut down again completely, leaving you with few (or no) options to return to Canada.

In this case, you’ll need to shelter in place until the bans are lifted and flights begin again. This could be a few weeks, or a few months, so make sure you have access to sufficient funds to support yourself abroad. At this point, the Canadian Government has made it clear that they are not planning any further Repatriation flights as the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory is still in place. Traveling during this advisory is done at your own risk.


INSURANCE

Every insurance company and policy is different, so there is not one single answer for ‘Will I be covered for Covid?’ but chances are, right now, you will not be. There may be some exceptions, such as if you purchased your insurance policy prior to March or if you have Cancel for Any Reason insurance, but you’ll need to check with your specific insurance company about their rules. For policies being purchased now for future travel, most do not cover cancellation, interruption or medical due to Covid, at least not while there is an Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory in place due to the Covid pandemic.

Now, that doesn’t mean you should go without insurance! Insurance is still a very important part of travel and can protect you from all kinds of unexpected situations. If a loved one passes away suddenly (not a pre-existing condition or Covid-19), then you may be able to make a claim for any non-refundable items. If you have a stop over and your connecting flight is cancelled (maybe due to mechanical malfunction, not due to Covid) and you have to spend a night, or three … or when you are abroad, if you get in a car or pedestrian accident, fall and break your arm, chip a tooth or have a heart attack (not related to a pre-existing condition or Covid), then you likely qualify to make a claim. It’s very important to remember that insurance covers you for a multitude of reasons and unexpected circumstances. It is not meant to cover you for things you already know about, it is designed to protect you from those you don’t.

If you are choosing to travel despite the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory, I highly recommend Cancel for Any Reason insurance. This allows you to cancel for any reason (including Covid), giving you a percentage refund, dependent on how far in advance you cancel. Only a few companies currently offer this product, but it can give you extra peace of mind knowing that you can recover some of your costs if you decide not to go. Feel free to contact me for a no-obligation quote at any time.


COUNTRY ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Only some countries are currently open to receiving International Travellers. And only some of those are allowing Canadians. Some require Covid testing on arrival. Some require 10 day quarantine on arrival, others 14 day quarantine. Some countries have split districts where the north is allowing tourism and the south is not, or it may vary by province. How they are enforcing this, I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think I’d want to be wrapped up in being a foreigner somewhere that I’m not supposed to be.

And the most difficult thing is that the rules of today could be better or worse tomorrow, or in two weeks or two months. You could book a trip today because Canadians are allowed in and there is no quarantine required, but two weeks from now when you travel, the rules could be changed. Instability is the name of the game for the next few months, at least.


RETURNING TO CANADA

If you’ve decided to travel abroad, for tourism or to visit family, you need to be prepared to quarantine for 14 days upon your return to Canada. At this time, you are allowed to be ‘in transit’ at Canadian airports to get to your home destination, but once you arrive, you are expected to do a full quarantine. For us, in Canada, that means 14 days where you remain inside or on your property regardless of whether you have symptoms or not. You do not go out for groceries or to get gas. You cannot use public transportation and you’ll need to have your food delivered either by a grocery service or a meal service. You don’t go for a drive or a walk down the street. You don’t invite friends over and socially distance by six feet. You isolate yourself so that you don’t potentially infect anyone else.

Different provinces have varying degrees of enforcement to ensure you are following the public health guidelines. Make sure you know the rules for your home province.


2020 – YEAR OF THE STAYCATION

For these reasons, most people are still staying home and traveling locally, within their province or within their provincial ‘bubble’. For the average person, it’s simply too complicated and risky to travel far, for leisure purposes.

Trust me, as a travel agent who makes my entire living based on people traveling abroad and who is deeply passionate about travel, this is not the message that I’d like to be sharing, but it’s only fair to be honest and transparent about the risks.

Many people are traveling to visit family abroad that they’ve been apart from for too long. Some people are returning to their home to stay and a few brave souls just can’t wait any longer to explore; wanderlust is strong within them!

As a travel agent, I am still here to help you plan your vacation, visit your family, put your insurance in place and help you navigate all of the changes. If you are planning to travel abroad in the coming months, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

While I understand most people do not need a travel agent’s assistance to travel within their own province, if you decide you are interested in traveling across Canada and would like help planning some amazing experiences in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario or Saskatchewan, which are all currently open for domestic travel without quarantine, or the Yukon or Northwest Territories when restrictions are lifted, I’d be pleased to help. If you are ready to start booking international travel for 2021, with many great deals and relaxed booking policies, I’d love to hear from you! Contact me today.

Stay safe at home and in transit. Things are getting better, it’s just going to take time.

Why Use a Travel Agent to Book Your Cruise Vacation – Case Study

If you’ve been wondering if you should use a travel agent to book your cruise, let me give you a few reasons why, yes, you should!

Working with an independent travel agent such as Shari Tucker Luxury Travel & Adventures can often be misunderstood. Many people don’t understand the value and benefit of working with an agent for something that you can seemingly, do yourself. However, all things are not created equal! Of course you can book your cruise online, but is that the best choice and best value for you? What might you be missing out on? Let’s look further.

If you’ve always booked your own vacations and have plenty of leisure time to spend researching your cruise, then you may not understand why anyone would use a travel agent. That’s ok! I’m here to help you understand what you are missing out on by booking a cruise on your own. If any of the following apply to you, it’s time you consider using a travel agent to book your next cruise:

  • Have little leisure time or little interest in doing in-depth vacation planning
  • Appreciate the advice of a professional in the field
  • Like speaking with someone who knows you personally
  • Find all of the options on the internet overwhelming to sort through
  • Have concerns about the reputability of companies you find online
  • Concerned about understanding cancellation and change policies or tend to ignore them and hope for the best
  • Enjoy supporting local or Canadian entrepreneurs and businesses

While I never promise anyone that working with me will be cheaper than booking on your own, I do always promise that you will get better (and more personal) service, you’ll be taken care of if something goes wrong and you will save HOURS of your precious time. It’s all about value for your money. On top of that, if I can save you money or get you extra perks along the way, that’s a great bonus! We all love to save money when we can!

To give you a tangible example of some of the benefits of working with Shari Tucker Luxury Travel & Adventures, check out the case study below of a recent booking with Royal Caribbean Cruises to see what you are missing out on if you aren’t working with a great travel agent.


Photo Credit: Royal Caribbean

CASE STUDY 1

BOOKING ON YOUR OWN

ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISE
Sailing:
11 night Canadian Adventure Cruise
Date: Oct 4, 2021 – Montreal, Canada
Ship:
Empress of the Seas
Category:
4N – Oceanview
Deck:
8 – 8022
Booking fee: $0
Service:

  • Self-service booking online, or you can call reservations with Royal Caribbean
  • Generally expect hold times of 15 – 60 minutes each time you call, longer during periods of high call volume
  • Speak to a different reservations agent, in the USA, each time you call.
  • Reservations agents answer specific questions about Royal Caribbean Cruises and input your information to book your trip
  • Reservations agents cannot provide information or book you on pre or post cruise land extensions

Public Rate for 1 cabin, 2 passengers: $3946 including port charges & taxes
On board credit or perks: $0
Deposit Terms: $960 – due day of booking – Non Refundable (except taxes & fees)


BOOKING WITH SHARI TUCKER LUXURY TRAVEL & ADVENTURES

ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISE
Sailing: 11 night Canadian Adventure Cruise
Date: Oct 4, 2021 – Montreal, Canada
Category: 4N – Oceanview
Deck:
8 – 8022 or 8026
Booking fee: $150 + tax
Service:

  • Speak with me, your personal travel agent, via email, text or phone
  • No hold times. If you are not able to reach me by phone on your first try, leave a message and I’ll call you back.
  • I get to know your preferences, your style of travel and make appropriate recommendations
  • You’ll speak with me directly each time you have a question or concern
  • I provide recommendations on the best available room, or best value category available and different price points.
  • If you are a past client, I have your booking details on file so you don’t have to go digging for passports and loyalty numbers.
  • I help you arrange insurance, flights, pre/post night hotels needed
  • I provide recommendations for land extensions to add before or after your cruise (additional fees may apply for booking).
  • I’ll help you navigate the new Covid-19 policies and procedures, on booking and at the time of travel
  • I can answer questions and give you advice on cancellation terms and conditions for your booking

Travel Agent Rate for 1 cabin, 2 passengers: $3568 including port charges & taxes (savings of $378 from the public rate of $3946, on the cruise rate)
Travel Agent Perk: On board credit of $25 per person / $50 per stateroom
Travel Agent Perk: Flexible Deposit Terms – $960 – due within 30 days – Fully refundable (in cash not future travel credit) prior to final payment
VS
Public Deposit Terms: $960 – due day of booking – Non Refundable (except taxes & fees)


SUMMARY

Clients paid $150 + tax up front to hire me to research and book this cruise. I then provide clients with on going service throughout the entire booking, travel and return process. I saved clients $378 from the public rate, plus secured them an additional $50 on board credit and better deposit terms. These clients still have flexibility to choose their own dining options on board, activities and port excursions. They can also use points, or book their own flights if they choose. If clients cancel before May 2021, they lose only the $150 that they have paid for my time and research. But, if they had booked direct they would lose their deposit of $960 if they cancelled prior to May 2021 because it is non-refundable.


NOW IT’S UP TO YOU

Still unsure if working with a travel agent for your next cruise vacation is the best option for you? Drop me an email to set up a FREE, 15 minute conversation where you can ask questions about the process as it pertains to your specific trip. Or, hire me for a 60 minute initial consultation by phone or video ($50 + tax) to discuss your trip and access my expertise on the various styles of cruise (or general) travel that you may not have considered. All cruises are not equal. They vary in ship size, amenities, age range, itinerary. You want to make sure you get the right fit, for YOU! From there, you can decide if you’d like to plan and book your own trip or hire me to organize it for you. The choice is yours.


Disclaimer: Information was correct at the time of publishing – July 2, 2020. Prices for cruises and promotions may change, rendering different results on different dates.

How the 737 Max 8 issues affect travelers

31JUL19
Earlier this year, tragically over 340 people were killed in two separate incidents involving 737 Max 8 planes, one in Kenya and one in Indonesia. While the sudden deaths have undoubtedly taken a toll on the friends and families of the victims, the world of tourism and the multi trillion dollar business of air travel has continued on, albeit with many modifications and changes.

In March 2019, 737 Max 8 planes were grounded worldwide until further information was gathered and until they could be deemed safe to fly.

Were the two crashes related? Was it pilot error? Lack of training? Equipment malfunction?

While every news outlet seemed to have ‘the answer’, somehow, all of ‘the answers’ were different which means, as usual, that while they were reporting on what they call ‘facts’, the real story would not unfold for months later. In fact, the real story is still unfolding and while we have new ‘facts’, the planes are not back in operation, so it seems to me, the story is on going and anyone stating a date when they will be back in operation is speculating.

WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?
As of July 30, 2019,  it has been announced that Air Canada, along with Southwest Airlines and likely various others to follow, have pulled their 737 Max 8s out of rotation until January 2020.  Until today you were able to book a fall flight from Halifax to London, even though it might not exist come fall. Today, they removed that uncertainty and have cancelled or replaced the routes operated by the 737 Max 8s until January, giving passengers some relief and stability in booking their fall / winter travels.

WestJet has pulled 737 Max 8s until at least Nov 4th, 2019.

HOW  DOES THIS AFFECT YOU AS A TRAVELER?

1. Not only do airlines have to reroute passengers, most of them need to do so with fewer planes in rotation, at a time when more people are traveling. In the end, that means that demand for the available number of seats is higher.  More people traveling + fewer planes flying means that you need to book earlier than normal and you need to be prepared for higher prices than what you may have historically paid. This is not a price hike … it is simply that the cheapest seats sell out early and if you are waiting until 1, 2, 3 months in advance to book your flights, then there may not be any of the cheapest seats still available.

This also means that popular routes are more likely to sell out and that more people will be doing advanced seat selection to ensure they get the seats that they want, rather than waiting until check in when it is getting harder and harder to get your choice seats.

2. May of the flights that were previously direct out of Halifax to various parts of Europe no longer exist. The one most people are missing the most is Halifax to London with Air Canada.  Now, you can expect to fly to Toronto or Montreal before heading across the pond to Europe with Air Canada. You can still fly direct from Halifax to Dublin, London Gatwick, Glasgow and Frankfurt. The problem is the routes forward from those locations with partner airlines are not well priced or well connected.

If you’d like to see the extent of Air Canada’s route changes, take a look here.

3. Many routes that had twice daily or daily service have been cut back to once daily and a few times a week. This is in order to free up planes to take over routes that were operated by 737 Max 8s. In turn, this means that those routes are now twice as busy because trust me, none of this has stopped people from traveling.

4. You can now book your fall / winter travel with Air Canada (and other airlines following suit) with better certainty for your flight routing and air craft type.  There may still be time changes and aircraft changes, as there always have been, but it won’t involve you flying on a 737 Max 8 until they are cleared to return to service.

5. If you have a flight booked on a 737 Max 8 route from now until January 2020, such as Halifax to London with Air Canada, your airline or travel agent will be in touch with your new routing, or in most cases you’ll have the option to cancel for a refund. I have already seen changes coming through for clients up until November 2019, so I would anticipate that if you have flights for November / December that were on 737 Max 8s, that those changes will be coming in the next few weeks.

6. Telephone wait times for the airlines are always long, but now they are longer. Grab a tea or coffee, get comfy and try not to lose your mind. The call-centre agents are working through requests as quickly as possible. It’s frustrating for everyone. Try to be kind.

If you are working with a travel agent, they often have access to agent-only lines with special service, however, these wait times can be long as well, so also have patience with your agent. Many days I spend 30 – 45 minutes on hold with airlines, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day.

7. If you’ve booked with a travel agent (give yourself a pat on the back), they are likely already taking care of this for you and you can sit back and relax.  In my case, I advised most of my clients booking in the last couple of months, for this fall, to choose routings that avoided the 737 Max 8 as I did not have confidence that they would be back in rotation any time soon. That doesn’t mean that some of those flights won’t be adjusted though as they have to move aircraft around to cover different routes.

8. If you are booking flights in 2020, pay attention to your assigned aircraft. If you are booking a flight operated with a 737 Max 8, there is no guarantee that it will be operating in January, Febuary, October 2020. We simply don’t know when they will be back in service. Keep an open mind and know that if the planes are fixed and deemed safe, you’ll have the best route. If they are not back in operation, be prepared to be rerouted.

9. Travel Insurance is so very important to protect your travel investment and interruptions that you may encounter along the way. However, it is also important to note, that at this point the issues with the 737 Max 8s are ‘known’ variables and to my knowledge, most insurance policies will not cover you for issues due directly to change of routing / cancellation if you are booked on a 737 Max 8. If you purchased your policy before the flights were grounded, then you are covered. For full details on your policy, you should check directly with your insurance company as they all have different rules.

LOOKING FOR DIRECT FLIGHTS OUT OF HALIFAX?
Right now, your options are limited to other cities in Canada, USA, Dublin, London (Gatwick), Frankfurt and Glasgow. In the winter season, we’ll again have direct flights to several Caribbean options.

While not completely up to date, you can check the Halifax International Airport Authority Website for what we ‘normally’ have for non-stop flights from Halifax.

NOT SURE WHAT TO DO?
When in doubt, book with a travel professional who deals with all of these intricacies day in and day out. You may have to pay a professional fee for their assistance up front, but the time they save you, expertise they have and peace of mind you’ll have in knowing it is done right will be priceless.

If you are looking for a travel agent to give you peace of mind, save you time and take the stress out of planning, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached by phone, Monday – Friday 9am – 6pm, evenings and weekends by chance, for emergencies or by appointment. You can also reach me by email at your leisure.

Travel Nightmares Part 4 – Night bus to Bocas

Panama City Rainbow
Bus travel has never been my favourite, but when given the choice between a $30 bus ticket and a $150 plane ticket (each way), I chose the cheaper one. On top of that, the planes from Panama City to Bocas del Toro are quite small and my luggage was considerably over the weight / size restrictions, especially after purchasing extra clothes and toiletries when my luggage was lost a week earlier.
After overlanding (large truck / bus like vehicles that you travel in for hours at a time) in Africa in October / November 2016, it was unusual that only minutes after starting to move on the bus in Panama that I did not feel well. The bus was dark inside and the sun was setting outside the window. I was squished against the window by the tiny human who had been maneuvered in between her mom and I in the seats made for two. I was annoyed, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
As the bus moved moved through traffic and across the bridge, I felt a wave of adrenaline pass through my body. It was a combination of the feelings you get when you trip and almost fall, and that which passes over you just before you vomit. As I sat there with this coldness that had passed over me, I didn’t quite know what to think of it. In my head I was trying to figure out if I was going to be sick or if the last turn on the bus just surprised me. As my mind went into overdrive and the cold claminess didn’t subside, I started doing mindful breathing to calm myself down.
And here I was 15 – 20 minutes into the bus ride doing what looked like Lamaze breathing. As much as I tried to calm my thoughts, they wouldn’t stop. I was obsessed with figuring out why I felt so strange. Was I getting sick? Was I going to puke? Was I having a panic attack? Was I scared? Was I uncomfortable? Was I having balance issues from the cold that I had had for the past couple of days? How could I stay on a bus for 10 hours like this? Over and over these questions ran through my mind at breakneck pace and I tried to answer them while breathing in and counting to six and then letting it go and counting to six.
This cycle continued for about an hour or a little more until the sun was completely down and the bus had gone completely dark. The mom beside me had picked up her child and was now breastfeeding, so I at least had a little more space to be comfortable, but that didn’t matter. It was time.
All of a sudden I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold it in. I knew that I was going to be sick, it was just a matter of time. My body was in a clamy, cold sweat and I had started to shake. I literally climbed on my seat to step over the mom and baby, as when I said I needed to get out, she just looked at me. I couldn’t wait, I needed out of that seat. I wobbled and rocked my way to the front of the bus as it charged along the highway. I knocked on the door that separates the driver and assistant from the passengers and as soon as the assistant opened the door, I immediately sat down on the floor, blocking the door from being shut.
The guy just looked at me, not sure what to think. I started to try and talk (in Spanish) and realized that I was breathless. I would say one word and then gasp for air before finding my next word. And then the tears started rolling down my face. In the best broken Spanish that I could muster I told the assistant that I was sick and that I needed to get off the bus. A combination of concerned and confused, he tried to explain that I couldn’t get off the bus at that moment. He asked what was wrong. Again I tried, through my breathlessness to spit out enough words that he would understand that I couldn’t breathe and that I couldn’t stay on the bus. It was in this moment that I realized I was having a full blown panic attack; something that has only happened to me once or twice in the past 10 years. Thankfully I recognized what it was and did not think I was dying, but none the less, I wanted off that bus. It’s a horrible feeling, not being able to control your breathing and not being able to calm yourself down, especially with no clear reason for why you are upset to begin with.
If you can imagine when someone close to you passes away and you find out suddenly. Then you start to cry, which turns into uncontrollable sobbing and thoughts swirling around in your mind like leaves in a wind storm. You cry so hard that you nearly forget to breathe and then you gasp for air before the sobbing starts all over again. For me, it was much like this except the tears were minimal and the gasping for air was amplified.
The assistant told me as nicely as possible that I couldn’t get off the bus because there was no where to pull over. We were on a twisty, turny highway going down the side of a mountain and sure enough, outside the window I could see there was no shoulder, just a ditch and forest.
He told me that I couldn’t stay seated there on the floor.
I told him that I couldn’t move.
He explained that our next stop (Santiago) was over an hour away and asked if I could wait until there. I told him no. Although I didn’t know what other option I had. It wasn’t like they could leave me on the road.

The assistant and driver chatted back and forth, but I couldn’t focus on their conversation (in Spanish). The best I could do was focus on breathing. They decided that there was a town coming up in about half an hour and told me they could let me off there. They told me there would be a couple of hotels there and asked if I could go back to my seat until then.

Wobbly and unbalanced, I made my way to the middle of the bus where I had been seated. Through my tears and exaggerated breaths, I asked the mom who was seated with me if she could move to the inside and she did. About five minutes later, the assistant came to the back to get me and brought me to the front of the bus to sit in his seat and he would stand.
Being too weak to carry anything and too sick to care, I left everything in my seat. My camera bag, my laptop bag, my money and my cell phone. Yes, I was THAT sick. You know it’s rough when you leave all of that stuff behind on a bus in another country. And yes, I knew I was doing it, I just couldn’t deal with it. The only thing I could deal with was trying to get enough air.
After the assistant got me seated and buckled in, he went back for all of my things and brought them to the front of the bus. He opened the window to give me a bit of fresh air, although it was hot and sticky, it was still appreciated. I couldn’t look down or turn my head to go digging through my bags as the motion was overwhelming, so I had to get him to find my cell phone for me so that I could try to call someone at my Spanish school to help me find a hotel at the next community. It would be even worse if I got off the bus and had no where to stay!

I tried one phone number, but being a Sunday night, there was no answer. So, I called one of the teachers from the school that I had a number for. And the process of me trying to spit out words while gasping for air and crying started again. It’s one thing to focus on your breath and try to keep yourself calm, it’s another to try and express yourself. Then, try to find words in another language because no one speaks English!

I’m sure the teacher didn’t actually know what was going on, but he understood that I was sick and needed off the bus. After a moment, I passed the phone to the assistant and asked if he could talk to the teacher on the phone. He looked at me like I was crazy, but said hello. The assistant was able to explain where we were and what town was nearby. From there, the teacher told me that he knew the area well and he would help me. My mind was so relieved, but unfortunately it didn’t help  me calm down.

The cold, claminess of my body had not passed, but all of a sudden another wave of chills rushed through my body. I had a plastic bag in hand, turned my head away from the driver and well, you know the rest. I don’t need to describe it. There I sat, in the assistant driver’s seat being violently ill while gasping for air through a panic attack.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity; it was relentless. Once my stomach had fully emptied out, the dry heaves continued.
I wanted to hide.
I wanted to stay still.
I wanted to breathe.
I wanted off the bus.

I felt horrible that I was vomiting in close quarters with two men who were complete strangers and were seeing me at my worst, not really knowing what to do with me. On the other hand, I was glad that they now knew I was really sick as well. The assistant handed me some paper towel and offered to take my plastic bag. I wasn’t ready to tie it up and part with it quite yet though!

As the dry heaves wained, I was able to check my cell phone messages again. Looking down and reading were not particularly easy, but I managed. I had to ask the assistant driver to respond to the messages as I wasn’t able to look down long enough to type. The motion was overwhelming. The teacher was able to secure me a hotel in a small town called Anton. The town was along the highway so the bus could just pull over and let me out.

I was glad to have not parted with my plastic bag as my heaves continued right up until the route flattened out and we could see a row of lights from the businesses along the highway. I certainly didn’t feel well, but I sure was happy to be getting off the bus.

The bus slowed and pulled over in front of the small hotel the teacher had told them about. The assistant helped me down the stairs and out the door as I was very shaky. And he carried all of my things for me. He rearranged the luggage under the bus to find my large, heavy red suitcase and took it inside the hotel for me. I didn’t think quickly enough to give them a tip, but I was able to say ‘Muchas gracias’ from the heart.

I’ll never really know if I was going to be sick, therefore I had a panic attack because I was worried about it, or if I had a panic attack that induced vomiting. Either way, they came together and were horrible. I wasn’t feeling particularly troubled by anything while I was sitting on the bus. I wasn’t worried about the journey. I was settled in for the next 10 hours. It really just came over me like a stormy ocean with lots of swells.
The best I can devise, without talking to a professional, is that the stress of a missed connection, lost luggage, arguing with Air Canada, the heat of Panama, being tired of traveling and the unfriendly turnstile lady, all exploded at once.
What I can tell you is this. Just like sobbing for hours and gasping for breath leaves you exhausted, so does a panic attack. After my things were in my room at the hotel, I went to buy water, brushed my teeth and went to sleep at around 9pm, with no idea of what the next day would hold for me. I would need to find a way to continue my journey (another 8 hours by bus and then 30 minutes by boat) to Bocas del Toro. Or, would I go back to Panama City and fly to Bocas? I knew that I was in no place to be trying to make decisions at that point.  Sleep was the only option.

Travel Nightmares Part 3 – Bus Station 1

Panama City Sunset
Panama City Sunset
As the sun was setting in Panama City, I was sitting on a big coach bus getting ready for a 10 hour overnight journey to Almirante, where I would catch a ferry the next morning to the islands of Bocas del Toro. Bus travel isn’t my favourite and bus travel in Panama is now on my ‘never again list’.
Bus stations in general aren’t the friendliest places anywhere in the world. They are often unorganized, chaotic and dirty. I had started my bus journey by arriving an hour early to make sure that everything would good smoothly, or so I thought. I asked the lady at the turnstiles (in Spanish) if I needed anything other than my receipt. She said no, so I thought I was all set.
In the waiting area, there were no easily accessible seats for someone like me with two carry ons and a suitcase. I strolled over to the wall where others were standing, leaning and kneeling. I set all of my luggage beside me and sat down on the dirty floor. I didn’t really want to stand for the next hour until boarding. I was wearing black work out pants and a t-shirt, what harm would a little bit of dirt on my ass do?
Not five minutes later, the same lady from the turnstile moved around the room at the pace of a sloth, and when she came to me, she told me in Spanish that I was not allowed to sit on the floor, I’d have to get up. I’m pretty sure I responded with ‘En serio?’ (which, in hindsight probably didn’t help me at the next point of contact). I got off my butt and squatted instead of sitting. Because, seriously, sitting on your haunches against a wall isn’t against the rules, but your bum on the ground is?
Eventually a seat opened up and I moved myself and my luggage to a chair that was about as clean as the floor I had been sitting on.
About half an hour later, the call for my bus was made and it was like a mad dash of sloths to the turnstiles. This cracks me up because it is so true. There’s no such thing as hurrying or rushing here. However, people will slowly move toward the gate all at the same time making sure to take up double the room necessary so that no one else can pass by. One person might be totally in your space, breathing down your neck from behind, but then the family in front of you has luggage and boxes strewn about in no particular order, blocking anyone from walking through the main path. It’s such an interesting (and frustrating) experience.
Finally, I arrived at the turnstile and I see people using a card to gain access to pass through the gate. I showed the same lady my paper and she waved me away. She didn’t use any words, just signalled that I could not pass. I stood my ground and asked her what I needed. She rambled on something about a card and waved other people to come past me. I didn’t move. I asked the lady (probably not in my nicest tone – in Spanish) where I could get this card. She basically said ‘Over there.’ and with a nod of her head in the direction of the ENTIRE busy hallway / bus station behind me. I mumbled ‘thanks’ (for nothing) and turned to make my way backward through the herd of sloths.
Another local lady was watching the situation unfold and she looked at me like I was a lost puppy.  ‘Tell the girl where she can get the card,’ she said, annoyed at the lady. The lady just looked at her and then pointed with her finger instead of her chin to where I should go ‘over there’. The local lady just shook her head with a look of embarrassment on her face.
I had been an hour early, asked if I had everything I needed and still was turned away at the gate 15 minutes before the bus was to leave. So much for trying to be proactive and have things run smoothly.
I rushed backwards through the crowds to go find this elusive counter and a card that I didn’t know I needed in order to catch my bus on time. I still don’t know what the card was for, but I paid a couple of dollars for it and in the end, it allowed me access through the turnstile and away from the nasty lady.
I dropped off my luggage for under the bus and got a ticket to show it had been received. I jostled for my place in line to get on the bus. It truly amazes me that people will actually push you out of their way to get on a bus that everyone is getting on anyway. And we have assigned seats, so it’s not even about getting a good seat. Locals pushed in front and all around me and physically separated a dad and child of about three years old as they were busy pushing their way on the bus and not worrying about the little one at knee height. Lucky he didn’t get kicked or fall over.
I settled in to my window seat. Ate my bag of bbq chips for dinner and crossed my fingers that no one would be sitting beside me so that I could stretch out a bit on the ride.
As the bus powered up, I was still sitting alone. Could I be so lucky?
No.

A lady and her toddler climbed on the bus last minute and made their way toward my empty seat. The lady smooshed the child in between us on the seats and settled in for what was sure to be a long ride.

And a long ride it was …

Travel Nightmares Part 2 – Hate

My luggage

In continuation of my Travel Nightmares Part 1 – Love, not everything went so well on my journey from Canada to Panama in December 2016.

While being pampered in Air Canada Premium Rouge class with extra snacks and upgraded food, I advised staff that I was supposed to connect to a flight to Panama but that it had likely already departed. They told me there were a few others on the flight with the same connection and that there was no current update, but we could talk to Air Canada staff after we cleared immigration, about any arrangements that needed to be made.

This is where my luck ran out and everything went downhill fast (or maybe slow would be a better description).

I was the third person off the plane and second person in line to go through immigration when we arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. The officer checked over my passport, asked me a few questions and asked for my boarding passes. When she discovered that my connecting flight had already departed, that’s where the real ‘fun’ began. She asked me where I would be staying. I explained to her that I needed to find an Air Canada rep in order to find that information out. I also told her that I was told there would be someone to speak to after I picked up my luggage (which was after immigration). She would have nothing to do with it. She told me she couldn’t let me pass until I could tell her where I was staying. I tried to explain my case again but no luck. I told her there were others in the same situation and that I thought they had already passed through, but she stood her ground. She kept my passport even though I pleaded to have it back and sent me to the back of the hall to an information desk where ‘apparently’ I could talk to ‘someone’.

The information desk was unattended, but I hollered ‘hello’ and heard an ‘I’ll be there.’ So, I waited. A nice lady come to the front, but unfortunately I wasn’t my normal chipper self, having just had my passport held and denied entry into the country that I wasn’t even supposed to be staying in. She called an Air Canada rep over the intercom no less than five times. Eventually a lady sauntered over (I’m still not sure if she worked for Air Canada or not). I explained the situation, including that I didn’t have any information on my connecting flight as we were just arriving and Air Canada had not given us any information. Further to that, I couldn’t get past immigration to find out if my flight had already departed or find a rep to discuss my situation. The lady was quiet. Not mean or unhelpful, just not very communicative. She made a couple of calls and told me that Air Canada had arranged for all of us to stay at Pegasus hotel for the night, but that we would have to call Aeroplan (because each of us were flying on points redemptions) to rebook our flights. Apparently we could do that after customs and immigration. She told me to bring my passport and come with her, to which I had to re-explain that the immigration officer held my passport and wouldn’t give it back.

Off the two of us went to the desk to get my passport back and sort this out. Except, the immigration officer didn’t just need where I would be staying, she also wanted to know which flight I would be departing on. Now, I understand that to be let into a country they want to know when you are leaving. This is a fairly standard rule. But, my frustrations were ever compounding because Air Canada had not rebooked my flights or provided any information. At that particular moment in time I was stuck in a country being denied entry, but also not able to make any further arrangements. And, I’m not in possession of my own passport. Of course they wanted me to call Air Canada Reservations right then to get flights sorted. Um no. I was not paying roaming charges from Jamaica to call Air Canada and wait on hold to sort this out. There had to be another solution. After all it wasn’t my fault that the weather was bad, the connections were missed and Air Canada left us to fend for ourselves.

The lady who was trying to help me disappeared without a word (would she return? I didn’t know). I connected with two of the other passengers who were just about to try their luck going through immigration. And then the lady came back, asking us all to come to one specific immigration desk. Except, the immigration officer still wouldn’t give me my passport. I waited for her to finish with the next client and saunter her way over to the other desk. One of the other girls who had been on my flight had actually been sent to a holding room without any information or her passport and she was just rejoining us.

In the end, we all made it through immigration somehow and were told to go to counter 41 after we had our luggage. There we would find a phone and could call the Air Canada rep to come out and talk to us about our hotel, transfer and hopefully our new flights.

You may remember in Part 1 I talked about how much luggage there was for all of the Jamaicans heading home from Canada after Christmas. Passengers had too much carry on luggage that was then put into checked luggage, plus, I’m sure more than half the plane had two bags (or boxes) per person. It was a steady flow of luggage coming along the belt, but it went on for an hour or more before they loaded the last piece. The other passengers that had missed their connection had gathered their luggage about 45 minutes into the process and left to see what they could find out about their flights and transfers. I told them I’d catch up as I suspected my luggage didn’t make the connection in Toronto and I would have to file a lost baggage claim.

My luggage
Last seen when I took this photo in Halifax Dec 29th at 3:45am

I waited for the belt to stop and the remaining bags were removed from the belt. Mine was nowhere to be seen, so off to the baggage counter I went. Go figure, it was unstaffed. I asked another staff member if there was an Air Canada rep around and she said ‘Ya, someone was here,’ and then turned her back to continue her conversation with a colleague. A minute later I approached her again and asked, as politely as I could after all of this, ‘Could you please help me find the Air Canada baggage rep?’ She sighed, started asking a few people and slogged off looking to see if she could track someone down.

When I turned around, there were now four or five others lined up at the Air Canada desk. A few minutes later, I jostled my way back to the counter when the rep finally arrived. I gathered the required paperwork to fill out and quickly returned it to the desk, anxious to get out of there and on to the next obstacle.

Although I was the first person to hand over my paperwork, somehow I was the second last person in the line to have my paperwork completed. Seems as though mine was more difficult, or maybe I had someone new working on my file. After a good 20 – 30 minutes at the counter, I was sent to stand in a line up to go through customs with a piece of paper saying my luggage had been lost. Thankfully they had created a separate line up for us because 100+ Jamaicans were still waiting in the customs line up to have their luggage approved for entry. I’ve seriously never seen so much luggage!

I had no issues at the customs desk, returned the piece of paper to the baggage claim area and made my way out the doors, officially into the heat of Jamaica.  Now the hunt was on for counter 41 where I hoped my fellow displaced passengers would be waiting for me, although I was a little skeptical as I had been well over an hour longer than them in the baggage area. After checking with the info desk, I was directed a few hundred meters away to the departures area where I would find counter 41 and my ‘pals’ waiting for me. Apparently they had come looking for me a couple of times but weren’t allowed back into the baggage area, so they just had to wait for me to appear. They had used the phone and spoken to an Air Canada rep who had told them that we would be staying at a different hotel, the Knutsford Court Hotel and we would all be transferred there as soon as I arrived. They had tried to make arrangements for their flights, but there wasn’t a phone available for use for that purpose, so it would have to wait until we got to the hotel.

Of course, the Air Canada rep had gotten tired of waiting for me (for over an hour) and had gone on break or to do something else and told the others to call through on the phone when I arrived. Because I already told you that the story keeps getting worse, it’ll be no surprise that dialling through on the phone line got nothing but a busy signal for the next 15 – 20 minutes while we continued to wait and had no contact with the rep and no way to call our transfer driver to take us to the hotel.

One of the other passengers went to talk to staff from another airline and ask for help. I asked one of the airport staff to help us and eventually the Air Canada rep appeared again. She called our transfer driver, introduced us to him and as we were about to load our luggage into the vehicle, she realized he wasn’t the right driver, so she re-introduced us to someone else. Gah! Seriously?

The five of us piled into two different vehicles and off we went in what we hoped were the correct vehicles, going to the correct hotel. We had touched down at around 4pm local time and it was now after 7:30pm as we were arriving at the hotel.

Check in at the hotel went smoothly, thank goodness as just about all of us were ready to burst from frustration. The hotel even offered to let us use the business centre phones to call Air Canada to sort out our flights for the next day. Unfortunately Air Canada and Aeroplan 1-800 numbers don’t work from International phone lines and they don’t provide a regular number. One couple had a travel roaming package for their cell phone, but that also wouldn’t help because the 1-800 number still didn’t work from Jamaica. Frustrations mounted even higher. We had really been left in the lurch.

I was slightly less panicked than the rest of the people as I knew I would be able to use Skype to call the 1-800 number. (One of the many useful pieces of information I’ve learned while being a digital nomad.) I told the others, but of course not all of them had Skype, or laptops. I offered for everyone to come to my room and we could try to do all of the changes at once, if the internet connection would hold.

One of the girls dropped by just as I was dialling Aeroplan as we had been advised they were the ones that would have to take care of it for us. We waited on hold for 1 hour, 16 minutes and 12 seconds (Skype shows me these stats). At about 45 minutes, one of the other girls came to visit and said that she had messaged her parents in Toronto. They weren’t able to get through to Aeroplan because of the long wait time, but they had gotten through to Air Canada and her flight was all taken care of for the next day’s departure. She was in the clear. As we continued to wait on hold with Aeroplan, I had the idea to call the travel agent line from Air Canada. Originally I hadn’t thought of it because we were told to call Aeroplan specifically. (Good thing I just did 10+ hours of Air Canada certification training to help my agency keep access to this special service line because it sure came in handy!)

Air Canada Certificate

About 30 minutes later, the staff at our travel agent line had my flight and one of the other girl’s flights all taken care of. There were a couple of glitches, such as the internet cutting out and dropping the call … but in the end, a second call, even with a different agent on the line and everything was sorted.

What a relief, right?

We headed down to have dinner at the hotel restaurant at close to 9pm and the last couple of people still hadn’t found a way to contact Air Canada as the 1-800 numbers weren’t working from Jamaica. I went and ordered my food and then came back to check on them to see if they had found another number. They hadn’t. I called the 1-800 number for them via Skype on my phone and advised there would be quite a wait time. I left them with my cell phone hoping the internet connection would hold and went back to have my dinner.

Unbelievably, an hour later when I was done dinner, the poor lady was still on hold. Actually, she had spoken to someone, gotten nowhere and was back on hold. It was a never-ending story for these folks.

I jumped on Skype on my computer while she continued to hold on my phone. I called the travel agent line again and had it sorted for her in another 20 minutes. Meanwhile she had still gotten nowhere with the phone call she had been on for a total of 1 hour, 42 minutes and 7 seconds.

What a disaster.

Finally, around 11pm, all five of us were sorted with new flights for the next day. Our transfer had been arranged and with any luck, we would arrive in Panama City 24 hours later than planned.

Just when you think the story has a happy ending …

With a good night’s sleep under our belts, we headed to the airport on time and there were no line ups to check in at the Copa desk (one of Air Canada’s Star Alliance partners). The first couple checked in with no problem. Done. Ready to go. The other two girls were at separate desks. One agent was asking for the girl’s proof of departure from Panama. At the other counter, the agent was telling the other girl that she could only check one bag and that her second bag would cost $125 USD to check through to Panama. This was after the bags had arrived in Jamaica without any fee. The real kicker on this though was that her second suitcase was full of items that she was planning to donate when she arrived in Panama.

At this point, my lost luggage was actually a blessing in disguise. Imagine! Since I had no luggage to check with me, I was able to check her second bag as my own for no cost. Problem solved … until they had difficulties finding my newly booked flight! Seriously, the complications just don’t stop!

I’ve got to say though, that between all of us being rested and in better state of mind and the Copa Airlines staff who were super helpful, these issues were handled much better than those of the very long day before.

While I’m now checking-in luggage for my new friend and the Copa Airlines staff are trying to get my ticket to appear on their system, the girl at the other counter is stuck with the same problem … her ticket won’t appear on their system. Thankfully the Copa staff were proactive and started talking to the manager, conversing with Air Canada and making sure it got fixed rather than leaving us to sort it out on our own. What should have taken five minutes for us all to check in, took 30+. A big thank you Copa Airlines for doing what it took to find the problems, correct them and get us all on that flight.

Fast forward …

We boarded the flight to Panama on time, it was smooth sailing and we finally arrived in Panama City. I was hoping that my luggage would have been sent on the same flight routing as the day before and that just maybe, it might be on the baggage belt with everyone else’s. No such luck. I waited until the end of the luggage unloading and then went to baggage services just in case they had marked it and pulled it before it went around the belt as it would have been traveling unaccompanied. Again, no luck, but they gave me phone numbers to call and check on the status.

This incredibly long story started on Thursday, Dec 29th, 2016 when I left my sister’s house at 3:15am. Tonight as I’m writing the final few sentences, the fiasco is still living on with me as my luggage is currently MIA. It’s now Monday, January 2nd at 11pm.

I’ve been able to confirm that it was *supposed* to be sent to Kingston, Jamaica on Dec 30th. Not much of a confirmation as no one can tell me if it actually arrived there or not. I’ve been authorized by Air Canada to spend $100 USD on essentials which they will reimburse me for. And, I’ve been advised to call back in 24 hours. Apparently, although they take all of your contact information (at home, in destination, hotel address and phone number, email addresses) they tell me that I will not be contacted with an update on when to expect it to arrive. It’s still my job to continue following up. In fact, the agent’s exact quote was worth noting ‘You’ll definitely be contacted sometime maybe, but you should call back to follow up.’ #CustomerServiceFail

Air Canada and Aeroplan, if you are reading this … all five of the customers (including myself) who have gone through this ordeal deserve an apology, some kind of compensation for the hours of hold time, stress of being at an unplanned destination overnight, being denied entry into the country with little to no assistance and left to rebook flights on our own. So much of this could have been avoided if our flights were proactively rebooked for the next day and the information had been communicated to the staff in Kingston, Jamaica. Since hotels arrangements were made for each of us and that was communicated … I’m left wondering why the flights weren’t?

And, because it’s January 2nd and I’d like to start the year on a positive note, I’m very thankful to be in Panama City (finally) and have met a couple of great new Canadian friends! Although sanity was lost during the process, new friendships have been gained.

Ever had a travel nightmare of your own? Did you file a complaint with the company / companies involved? Did they ever respond? Leave me some comments!

River Cruise 101

Douro River, Portugal

River Cruising

For the past couple of years, the river cruise industry has been booming. What once was only for the retired and wealthy, has become a bucket list trip for many and a trendy way to travel for 21 – 45 year olds. It is not just for 60 plus anymore! Be careful though, it’s addictive! You may think it’s a once in a lifetime trip, but river cruise companies boast incredibly high repeat business stats which means you may find yourself floating down a different river each year!

Don’t be surprised if your friends are talking about their amazing vacations on the rivers of Europe, or the excitement of an upcoming trip! You’ll probably hear them swoon about the mouthwatering food, the free-flowing local wines along with the castles and quaint towns to get lost in. It’s a picture perfect get-away.

Why choose river cruising over ocean cruising
River and Ocean cruises have a few things in common, but yet a few big distinctions too. If you are looking to only unpack once and visit various ports, both options have you covered. You can even choose from standard ships to ultra-luxury and various room categories from small porthole windows to balconies or the Captain’s suite, depending on your budget.

Although millions of people take ocean cruises each year, more and more people are looking to River Cruising for a more intimate, cultural experience, making it one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry. Companies are adding new ships each year to keep up with the demand.

Here is what you can look forward to on your first River Cruise:

Destinations – One of the biggest draws of River Cruising is the opportunity to visit smaller, lesser-known ports along the waterways. While many River Cruises start and finish in big cities such as Amsterdam, Porto, Paris or Budapest, you’ll also be treated to smaller cities and unique excursions along the way. In France you might take a steam train ride in Tournon or visit an olive farm in Arles. You might do a Medieval City tour in Nuremburg, Germany or taste port wines in Pinhao, Portugal. And, did you know that you can do River Cruising in Asia, Russia and Africa too?

Food & Drinks – Be prepared for a culinary treat. You’ll be dazzled with a fresh variety of delectable creations, often made with local produce and meats that the chefs shop for along the way. Each meal will be unique and paired with local wines. Every night will be a fine dining experience for your taste buds, but rest assured, you can dress comfortably and casually. No need for a suit and tie!

The Atmosphere – You’ll find only 100 – 200 passengers per ship on a river cruise in comparison to 3000 – 5000 on an average cruise ship. Think of an ocean cruise as a floating city filled with lots of activities and people. Think of River cruise as a quaint community. There will still be great experiences and activities, but they’ll be more cultural and intimate, less Vegas. You won’t find a disco or a casino on your river cruise, but you will be treated to top-notch local entertainment from nearby communities. And, you’ll also have the opportunity to stay in port some evenings to enjoy the nightlife, a rare find on an ocean cruise itinerary.

The Views – Instead of whiling your time away staring at miles and miles of ocean, sit back and relax with the ever-changing views of rolling hills, Medieval Towns and grand castles slowly drifting by your floor to ceiling windows while you sip a glass of regional wine.

Ah! Doesn’t that sound perfectly relaxing?

With the appeal of visiting several ports, but only unpacking once and the option to explore smaller cities on foot, bicycle or by tour … no wonder river cruising is one of the hottest trends in travel!

What are you waiting for?

INSIDER INFO:

Local wines, beers and spirits are often included with your meals, but make sure you know if they are for purchase outside of meal times or included. Each company does it differently.

Did you know that some ships will pack a gourmet picnic lunch for you to take ashore?

River cruises often sell out nine months to a year in advance, so you’ll find better deals for an early booking bonus rather than a late space special.

Need help deciding what River Cruise is best for you or finding the best value for your hard earned money? Let’s set up a time to chat by phone, or drop me an email. I’ll be happy to help you with your dream vacation!

Phone: 902 402 7646

Email: stucker@tpi.ca

 

Douro River, Portugal
Douro River, Portugal

Photo Essay: Light of Lisbon

Lisbon Tram

The famous ‘Light of Lisbon’ is no joke. If you’ve never heard of it, you should trust me and go experience it for yourself. With all of the intricate shining tiles of all different colours adorning the old houses, light reflects in every direction and creates a warm diffused glow. The light is especially spectacular in the late afternoon and early evening as the sun starts to wind down it’s day and slowly falls into the Atlantic Ocean for the night.

Below I have selection of my favourite photos from my time in Lisbon early in 2016. I hope they will entice you to visit Lisbon.

Enjoy!

Small Group Travel – Middle Agers

Photo Tour 2013 in Peru

As a travel agent over the past few years, I’ve heard all the excuses. The general consenses is that small group travel means 50 seniors on a big coach bus going at a turtle’s pace, following a colorful umbrella and stopping at each boring monument.

Please, let me educate you on a whole world of small group travel options that you are missing out on because of this widespread misconception! Please, open your mind for a few minutes and let me share with you my personal and professional experiences.

What if I told you that you can have a super-fun, yet still relaxing, vacation that combines the best of travel without all of the stress of planning it and booking every single minuscule detail?

What if I told you it doesn’t matter if you are single, in a relationship, married or divorced that travel is for everyone?

What if I told you that people from 18 – 99 travel in groups by the thousands every year with other people around their age and with similar interests?

What if I told you that you can travel anywhere in the world and never HAVE to be alone? (although if you choose to be, you certainly can)

I’ve done my fair share of solo travel over the last few years. In fact, I’m sure that’s what most of you think I do all the time, but that’s not true! I’ve been on several amazing small group tours in the last four years as well, not to mention a whole bunch of day tours that I adored!

Myanmar – Tucan Travel
Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand – G Adventures
Chile & Argentina – Intrepid Travel
Belize – G Adventures (this itinerary is now a National Geographic Journey.)

There is small group travel for everyone and some are specific to an interest, such as photography or cycling. Others are specific age groups, such as 19 – 20 somethings or seniors. Then there is a whole world of options for the middle agers, as well as for the mature 20 somethings and the extra active 60 – 70 somethings.

I hear these comments all the time …

“I can do it on my own.”
* Yes, you can. And, if you want to because you want to prove to yourself that you can, that’s great. However, if you simply don’t know the other options, you should learn why they are so awesome. Group travel isn’t any less adventurous, less rewarding or less worthy. It is often less stressful and better value though!

“I can do the same thing for cheaper.”
* Hmmmm …… No, actually you can’t. You might be able to book your flights, accommodations and entrance fees to the sites for slightly cheaper than a group tour, but you won’t have a local guide with you to share his or her stories and opinions (which, in my opinion is worth far more than the $200 bucks you saved and all of the hours it took you to book everything online!) You may or may not have a qualified guide to explain each of those sites you paid to get in to. You probably won’t have any meals included (maybe breakfast). Are you skilled at paying off people at the border to let you into a new country without a hassle? hmmm … And, if things go wrong at any step of the way, you are on your own. So, yes, you can book ‘something’ for cheaper, but NO, it will never be the same.

“I don’t want to travel with strangers.” (My favourite)
* So, you think you already know everyone you are going to see in the new country? (sarcasm). If you don’t want to travel with strangers, why are you traveling at all? If you want to be surrounded with your old familiar friends, that’s great, stay home. But, as soon as you head to the airport, you are with strangers (sorry to break it to ya). So, embrace the fact that you are surrounded by strangers, get out of your comfort zone and get to know them.

Oh, you meant you “don’t want to travel with other travellers”. You want to meet locals.
Alright, so I agree, traveling in a group of other travellers is not the same as meeting locals. However, if you think you are just going to arrive in a new country and locals are going to flock to you and become your friend, well …. it’s not really like that. It takes work to get to know the locals. So, if you are the extroverted type who can go hang out at a bar and talk up the bartender, or you go to the same market every day and chat with the lady selling fruit, that’s great. Not everyone can do that and don’t forget about the language barriers. If you think that you are getting to ‘know’ the locals by going to an all-inclusive resort … don’t forget, they are being paid to serve you. Chew on that for a few minutes. Is that what getting to know the locals looks like to you?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent lots of time with amazing locals in many countries, but personally, I find it takes a lot of effort and a lot more than just five or six days to get to know people. Most times you have one encounter with a local. It might last five minutes or five hours, but you can hardly really understand an entire culture in that amount of time. You are only just scratching the surface.

Traveling with other travellers isn’t a bad thing! You get to learn about cultures and people from all over the world while you explore a destination that you are all interested in. You meet new friends (which you can then go visit in their countries – they are ‘locals in their own country you know!) and you have that little bit of comfort in knowing someone nearby likely understands why you are uncomfortable with the thought of eating a bug, a worm or spider.

“You’re so good at traveling by yourself. Why would you want to ruin that with a group tour?”
* Traveling solo is tough. It’s a whole other blog post (or series). Yes, I love my freedom and my alone time, but I also hate being lonely, going to dinner by myself and often being overwhelmed at the ‘newness’ of everything. Sometimes, it is just better to be with people who are seeing things for the first time with you. And, sometimes it is just a whole lot easier when someone else is in charge and deals with any mishaps or problems that arise! So, yes, I love traveling solo, but every time I’ve taken a group tour I’ve loved my experience and appreciated that things were just taken care of for me. I’ve also always loved my local guides and picked their brains for all kinds of information for further travel in their homeland … you know, the things you don’t find on the internet and in the guide books!

So, just what happens on one of these group tours?

For starters, most of them run in a similar fashion but all have their key features. In general, what will happen is you’ll meet with your group and tour leader on day 1. You’ll likely go out for a group dinner to get to know each other and go over the itinerary for your tour. Often (although not planned) this will turn into your first night on the town with your new friends, exploring the local bars or street foods. Sometimes your local leader will join you and other times, they will direct you to the best local spots, avoiding the tourist traps. You are not obligated to take part by any means, but it is a great way to get to know the people you’ll be traveling with. I’m not a drinker, but I often join in on the first night out just to chat with people.

Itineraries vary a great deal depending on destination and level of activity, but I can tell you from both personal experience and from selling hundreds of group tours, that there is something for everyone.

You’ll have a mix of included activities and free time. You’ll have some timelines that must be followed (for example 8am in the lobby to catch your 10am flight). And then other times your leader will say ‘this isn’t in the itinerary, but how do you feel about … ?’ However, don’t get wrapped up in thinking that you are tied to the group the entire time. Often the group will have a guided tour and then free time to explore further on your own, or with other group members. Often tour leaders will give options for free time, but that doesn’t mean you have to do any of them. Almost all tours have half or full free days scheduled in for you to take in specific activities of interest, to relax, shop or explore. Group tours are a good mixture of having friends and organization, but having freedom to do your own thing as well.

Picture yourself exploring a turtle sanctuary on a beautiful Costa Rican beach, hiking the inca trail in Peru, swimming with turtles and rays Mexico, meeting local farmers and helping with their harvest in Vietnam, hot air ballooning over Love Valley, Turkey, searching for the big five on a safari in Africa, enjoying wine tastings in France or Italy, climbing to the top of ancient ruins in Belize … the list goes on and on. And you don’t have to do it alone!

When I’m on a group tour and there is free time, I’m the first to go off on my own and do my own thing. I’m an introvert, so after two or three days spending a lot of time with a group, I find I need my own time. However, many of the people in my past groups have become great friends and spent all of their free time with other members of the group, exploring common interests in the new destination. It’s your choice. Go with new friends or chill on your own. Read a book in the sun or play cards with your new mates! Whatever makes your vacation perfect, that’s what you should do! Your local guide will be around to help you make plans and book tours whether you go it alone or in a group of new friends.

On the last night of the tour, there is usually another group dinner to enjoy the local food and beverages, which often turns into an evening outing drinking beer or wine with your new friends. It all depends on the group whether this becomes a wild and crazy goodbye party or a few friends at the pub sharing laughs. And, believe me, I’ve seen many a 50 or 60 year old have one too many and the 29 year old heads off to bed early. You just never know! And then the next morning, everyone parts ways to return home or continue on their journey.

It paints a little different picture than a group of 50 seniors on a coach bus stopping at monuments, right? And, I should point out that the 30 to 50 somethings love to nap on buses, likely more so than the seniors!

No matter what you are looking for, or where in the world you want to travel, don’t ever think that doing it on your own is the only option! It is AN option and many people love doing the research, the challenge of struggling with the language barriers, paying off police officers and border crossing guards, finding their way in a new land on their own. Many people love the challenge of saying they survived all of the obstacles. But, for many, all of the unknown is enough to make them want to stay home.

What I’m saying to you is get out there and travel. If you want to do it on your own, do it! If you’re apprehensive about doing it on your own, go with a group. And, don’t let your ‘do it yourself’ friend convince you that group tours suck. Group tours might suck for them, but might be perfect for you. After all, the same ‘do it yourself’ friend is probably great at fixing the electrical and plumbing in his / her house too, does that mean that you are?

Have you travelled on a small group tour before? Drop me a note in the comments about where you went and what you loved about your group!

If you are interested in exploring the plethora of options for group tours out there, get in touch. I’d love to help you, your friends or your parents get away and see something new in this beautiful world of ours!

Contact me by phone 902.402.7646 or email.

Loule, Portugal Carnaval 2016 – Photo Essay

When I decided that I would head to the Algarve region of Portugal, I hadn’t even considered the fact that I would be visiting during Carnival festivities. About two days before departing Amsterdam for Faro, I learned that Loule, a community inland was known for hosting the oldest and largest Carnival in the Algarve region. With it being only 45 minutes or so away from Albufeira, I would have to make my way there to see the celebrations!

I walked 20 minutes to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town and arrived just in time for the 10:10am bus to Loule. I jumped on the bus behind a man toting a Canada flag on his back pack and immediately struck up a conversation with him and his three traveling companions. Turns out, one couple was from Halifax, Nova Scotia and the other from Miramichi, New Brunswick. Small world! We chatted away through the 45 minute bus ride and in no time at all we had arrived in the little city of Loule.

I headed in to the centre of town which was about a 10 minute walk from the terminal. I made the obligatory stop at the information centre to get a town map and a couple of pointers and then I wandered around taking photos of the historical old town and observing local life for the next couple of hours.

By 12:30, it had started to rain and I had seen pretty much all there was to see in the historic centre. It’s a pretty small area. I headed for lunch and wondered what I was possibly going to do with myself until 3pm when the parade would commence. After an underwhelming lunch of rice and two small chicken thighs that the restaurant ‘called’ chicken piri piri, I wandered around a bit more and then sat down for dessert at La Boehm Cafe. The warm brownie and hot chocolate warmed my spirits up and left me more satisfied than the sad little lunch I had eaten.

By 2:15pm it was raining again (or still) and I made my way to the parade route with my camera around my neck, my backpack rain protected and my umbrella above my head. I was awkward at best trying to use my camera and an umbrella at the same time. Luckily I didn’t take anyone’s eye out.

By 2:30pm the streets were lined with locals and tourists and the floats were starting to fill with participants. Media had arrived to interview and film the oldest carnival celebration in the Algarve region and bands were warming up with their samba beats. The build up of music and energy was infectious and I stood on the street tapping my feet and grinning. (Don’t mistake the ‘tapping my feet’ for anything near samba dancing though!)

Right on time, at 3pm, the music blared and the streets came alive with energy and colors.
The rain had subsided momentarily and the drummers and dancers were getting the feel for the beat as the parade began. Confetti and streamers were already dancing in the wind, filling the trees, streets and hair of everyone around with colourful reminders of the day.

Despite the chilly temperature of about 14 degrees, not to mention the wind and misty rains, lots of the performers put on radiant smiles and shared their energy and love of carnival with the crowd. Having said that, there were quite a few who couldn’t muster smiles through the rain. Some of the kids were pretty cold and not so happy to be there. I chose to focus on the excited ones though, so here’s a look at Carnaval 2016 in Loule from my perspective. Hope you enjoy!