Posted in Life, Travel

$199? Are you kidding?

We were pretty excited when we saw short lines for bag drop at the Spirit Airlines counter at Orlando International Airport. Just before a hand went up to summon us to an open scale, I heard a man exclaim, “A hundred and ninety-nine dollars? Are you kidding me?” (Yes, he used more colorful language.) He hadn’t paid for checked bags in advance and both suitcases were over the forty pound limit. That’s not a happy way to start your journey. Clearly, he was a rookie Spirit traveler.

On our way home from Dallas, we found a few seats behind the gate desk. I overheard a man exclaim, “Ninety-nine dollars? You gotta be (add your colorful adjective here) kidding.” His carry-on bag exceeded the 18″x14″x8″ dimensions for a “personal item,” so he was going to have to pay. His wife added, “We never had a problem before.” I subtly wandered over just to see how big those carry on bags were. His backpack was about double the allowed fatness. Hers was an open, overstuffed tote bag. When he pulled out a wad of cash, the agent said, “I can only take a credit card.” His face got a little redder. His wife handed over a credit card and said, “Fine. We don’t want to be those people.”

“$99. Are you ^%$&^* kidding?”

As we waited to board the plane, I watched gate agents tell passenger after passenger to put their unpaid carry-on in the “personal item” size box. They know what’s not going to fit. It’s entertaining to watch people try to stuff huge bags into that little space. Guess what? You’re going to pay.

The gate agents who had to deal with all of that were well trained. They had awesome people skills. Good thing, because they had to deal with a lot of challenging people.

One of my new hobbies is travel hacking, figuring out how to make the most of cheap fares. I am amazed at how roomy a 17″x13″x7″ backpack can be. My wife and I both had one of those and one checked bag. Sweet.

So here’s some of what I’ve learned about traveling cheaply:

  • If your travel days are flexible, you’ll save money. Some days are cheaper than others. That’s just the way it is.
  • If you must check or carry on a large bag on Spirit or Frontier, pay for it when you book your flight. You’ll get the lowest price.
  • Buy a backpack or roller bag within the personal item guidelines. It will hold so much more than you think. Ladies, pack an empty purse inside your personal item and load it when you arrive.
  • Lay out everything you want to pack. Put half of it back in the closet and dresser. You’ll be fine. You can wear some clothes two times.
  • Buy your toiletries when you get to your destination. Our Airbnb had soap, shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste in the bathroom.
  • Wear your jacket and hat. Put stuff in your pockets. Once you’re on the plane, stash them away. No need to take up luggage space.

This time, our flights were the cheapest part of our last trip to Dallas to see my son and his family. Next up: reign in the cost of a rental car, which is getting ridiculous.

Posted in Life

Sleeping with the horses

While visiting our Rowlett, TX family, we stayed in the loft of a horse barn that we discovered on Airbnb.

So some travelers might think, “You stayed in a horse barn?” Kind of. The loft had been remodeled into a very nice 600 square foot efficiency, more comfortable and equipped than some of the whole houses we had rented before. When I told three-year-old granddaughter Josie, “We’re sleeping in a horse barn,” she said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. The horses will chew you up!”

We were in no danger of bring chewed up by the two horses who lived in the barn beneath us, Proton and King. They were all about the fruits and veggies we brought. As soon as we pulled up into the small parking area, they ambled over. We thought they were just being friendly. They wanted to see what kind of snacks we brought for them. Every time we left for the day or came home at night, they came over for carrots and apples. If we had none, they quickly went back to whatever they were doing, which was mostly foraging around the yard for food.

The neighboring corral was home to some Shetland ponies. As soon as they saw us feeding the big horses, they came over to the fence, knicker it a soft, “Don’t forget about us.” We didn’t, and they were more friendly when all the produce had been eaten.

Late at night, if I woke up and rolled over, I listened to the night sounds. The heater fan and the refrigerator robbed the night of its silence. Plus, I heard some other sounds. Water dripping? No. Wind outside? Sometimes. Then I realized the other sounds were the horses in their stalls right beneath us. They were snoring or eating or moving around or whatever horses do at night.

We’ve stayed in eight short term rentals in Rowlett and Garland. Some were newly remodeled and very nicely decorated. Others were spartan. One had four bedrooms with a TV in each. This one was a single room. When we come, we really don’t spend a lot of time in the rental other than to sleep.

The horses really make the loft stand out. I know they are fair weather friends, more interested in treats than in me. But they always welcome us home after a day of negotiating Dallas metro traffic to go anywhere or do anything.

Posted in Life

The Spartan Airbnb

I guess we were spoiled.

Since we began booking Airbnb homes rather than hotel rooms to visit our son in Dallas, we have stayed in some very nice homes. Many had been recently renovated, were creatively decorated, and were thoughtfully filled with amenities. We’ve stayed in places that had wall-mounted TVs in every room, surface phone chargers, and an easy-to-use printer. The kitchen was stocked with bottles of water, coffee pods, snacks, and condiments for meal prep. The bathrooms were chock full of fluffy towels, soaps, conditioners, and lotions. The beds were full of pillows and the closets with extra blankets. Binders full of house instructions, favorite restaurants, and nearby attractions. The owners weren’t obligated to provide all this, but we were glad they did.

Most recently, though, we stayed in what I have labeled the “spartan” airbnb. It was sparkling clean. It was well-maintained. It had lots of space for guests. I slept well in the comfortable beds.

Amenities? Virtually none. We could not find one dish towel in the kitchen. We were not able to locate any extra pillows or blankets in the bedrooms. Bath towels were few and far between. There was nothing in the refrigerator. Not a single ice cube in the freezer. One condiment: a salt shaker. Three or four generic coffee pods. Very few knick-knacks or wall hangings. Just a couple of hangers in the closets. No instructions whatsoever for the fireplace, TVs, or internet.

OK, so it wasn’t all bad. The wifi was very fast. The house was a five minute walk from my son’s house. It was the week of Thanksgiving, and the hosts had put up a Christmas tree (although it was sparsely decorated). The home looked exactly like the pictures we had seen.

We had just gotten spoiled.

After I got home, I was surprised to read reviews from guests who described this house as the nicest they had ever stayed in. Obviously these folks hadn’t stayed in too many places.

And I was also amused when I texted the host and asked about check-out instructions. (Remember, there was no binder of instructions.) The only direction was, “Please naked the beds.”

Lol. We did.

Posted in Travel

A rainbow dress on Rainbow Row

When my wife and I went to Charleston, SC in September, we got down to Rainbow Row in the historic district of the city on East Bay Street. As we stopped to take pictures from across the street, we just happened to catch this young lady wearing a dress to match the colors of the row homes.

My brother looked up a few of the house values along that street. All were upwards of $2 million. But a rainbow dress on Rainbow Row? Priceless.

Posted in Travel

Good to see you again, Big Tex!

We got to Texas just in time to attend one of the last days of the Texas State Fair. We last went five years ago and I was itching for a little fair food.

Since it was Saturday, the fairgrounds in the heart of Dallas were only a thirty minute drive from our Airbnb in Rowlett. We picked up three of our grandchildren and headed out in a wonderful fall-feeling fifty degree morning.

We found a $20 parking spot in a convenience store lot just across the street from gate 5. Just about anyone with some blacktop was running a $20 parking business in the surrounding area. There was no line to buy 2 senior (yes, we both qualified), 2 child and one (free) toddler ticket for admission. We were already in for about $100, and we had just arrived. Going to the fair is not a cheap date.

Our first stop was a children’s aquarium, promising sharks and sting rays. (Oh, by the way, that was a separate admission price.) It was actually a nice collection of fish and sharks, and we did get to pet some baby sting rays. We also dipped our hands into a tank filled with doctor fish that gently pecked away at the dead skin on our hands.

Our seven year old, Eden, wanted to ride the huge ferris wheel, so she and my wife got in line. I bought a bunch of coupons for rides and food and gave them twenty for the ride (BTW, coupons are $1 each), while I took the other two off to grab some corn dogs. After they quickly disappeared, we headed to the cattle barns.

Inside one of the cattle barns

As with any good state fair, the livestock barns are enormous. We walked through stall after stall of beautiful cows being cleaned and prepped for showing that day. They were the best of the best. The ferris wheel riders met us at the swine barn, where we saw the best hogs from around the state. The champion boar, weighing in at 1155 pounds, was sound asleep in his pen out side the barn.

Boris, 1155 lb. champion boar

By now everyone was hungry again, so I rounded up two more corn dogs, some lemonade, a burger and an huge plate full of french fries. Fully fueled we made our way back to the birthing barns.

The birthing barns were cool. We saw several calfs born that morning as well as litters of hogs from the past few weeks of the fair. A few goats were about to give birth, too. This was a very popular and crowded venue.

Bull born that morning

From there we walked through some shopping booths, filled with lots of unique jewelry, clothing and toys. By this time, we had done a lot of walking and still needed to see Big Tex, so we made our way back towards the gate where we came in. By mid-afternoon, the fair was crowded, but we made it to the big guy. We did lots of walking, but the kids (and the grands) took it in stride.

On our way out, people continued to stream in the gates. Cancelled in 2020, this year’s fair was expecting 2.5 million visitors over twenty-four days, taking in over $65 million dollars and generating close to $500 million of business for the community. It is the biggest state fair in the country.

Just one of the grills with the biggest turkey legs I’ve ever seen
Posted in Travel

Back in the air

For the first time in more than two years, my wife and I took a flight for our latest trip to Texas to see our son and his family. Our last flight was to Israel in September of 2019. We had been doing a lot of driving, but decided it was time to get back in the air.

Everyone was wearing masks, as required by the airports and airlines. I didn’t hear anyone complain or make a fuss. We both had some comfortable masks that I had bought at Home Depot, of all places. However, when we finally got into our rental car, we were glad to be done with them. All the people in the pre-flight safety videos were wearing masks, too.

At first it felt very strange to be back in the airport after such a long time away. The lines were not long and the concourses really weren’t very crowded. I guess Thursday noon isn’t the busiest travel time of the week.

It didn’t take long for me to remember how much I like watching people at the airport. I commented to my wife that eighty percent of the people dress like they do on any other day. But the other twenty percent wear clothes you never, ever see outside of the airport. Outrageous bold colors and prints, outfits that look more like pajamas than street clothes, very tight dresses, and shoes that look extremely uncomfortable.

Both of our flights were completely full. The flight attendant hands you a small disinfectant wipe packet as you board the plane, to either clean your hands or wipe down your seat and tray, I guess. A man across the aisle from us had brought a spray bottle of disinfectant, and sprayed down everything in his row.

Believe it or not, many travelers attempt to carry on even more than they did before. A man ahead of me carried on a suitcase and two backpacks. No wonder the overhead compartments fill up before the plane does. I enjoy the freedom of traveling very lightly, carrying as little as I possibly can.

Our flights to Texas were all on time. The only delay came at the car rental desk, where everyone, including us, had reserved a car from Budget. All the other desks were just about empty. I waited about an hour to get our car. And then after we were just about to pull out, a woman knocked on our window. Another agent had assigned her the same care. She went back in. We quickly pulled away.

Easily the most interesting guy I saw at the Jacksonville, FL airport today.

Posted in Israel, Travel

Mahane Yehuda Market

Our last day in Israel was the “go do whatever you want day.” My wife and I and a few friends decided we wanted to return to the Jewish quarter of Old City Jerusalem and then check out the highly recommended market, Mahane Yehuda.

When we started out, we didn’t even know the name of the market. But a shop owner said, “You are probably looking for Mahane Yehuda” and he wrote down the name for us. Great. Now, how do we get there? “Oh, it’s easy. You have to go deep into the Arab market, out the Jaffa gate, and head towards Jaffa road and St. George.” We thanked him as if we knew what that meant, and headed towards the Jaffa gate, where our taxi had dropped us off early that morning.

We got to the Jaffa gate. Now what? Aha, there’s a tourist center here. He sent us out the gate and up the hill to where we could catch the tram, a light rail train that would take us to the market. We saw the tracks in the road, and waited for the next train to come so we could see where the stop was. Once we got to the stop, it looked like we would need to buy a ticket. Not quite sure how to do that, a random guy simply directed us to a machine that had an English option. As I fiddled with the buttons and my debit card, a train came and left. Finally the machine spit out five tickets for us, and we boarded the next one.

I think this is the first time my wife and I have set out to explore a city on our own without a translator or guide with us. I really enjoyed the adventure! As we were told, everyone we asked for direction was extremely gracious and helpful.

Sitting on the train, I looked up and saw a sign announcing the next stop – in Hebrew. I can figure out some Hebrew, but now quickly. Before I knew it the announcement changed to Arabic. Not helpful. Finally came the English. We reached the stop specially designed to bring traffic to the market, and started down the street.

There is a lot of information on Mahane Yehuda Market on Wikipedia. Over two hundred and fifty vendors lined the streets, some out in the open, some under cover. There were fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, bread, halva, baklava, coffee shops, spiced and dried fruit, olives, and candy as far as my eye could see.

Turning into one of the covered areas, we came across Haachim Levy spices, teas and fruits. The young man working the booth enthusiastically described and let us try many of the blends of dried fruits out front that could be used to make tea, infuse drinks, or mixed into oatmeal. We bought three sweet and one savory blend from him.

Baklava, anyone?

We asked him where to get the best baklava and coffee in the market. With booth after booth selling those items, we wanted a recommendation. He directed our eyes down the long row of booths past several signs his favorite coffee roaster. “Just past that you’ll see an old man – that’s where you want to buy your baklava.” At the coffee roaster, I got a delicious long espresso made from a Tanzanian blend. Sure enough, just a few booths down we found a huge display of baklava. We loaded up a box with one of each that was sealed up so we could take it home with us.

As we continued to walk through the market, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in Jerusalem did their food shopping here. Throughout all our travels, we hand’t seen any grocery stores or Walmarts in Jerusalem. Maybe we just didn’t go through those parts of town. After a little research, I learned that there are some grocery chains there. But most people talk about the markets.

The experience reminded me of the markets in Baltimore when my wife and I lived there. The best thing is you buy everything fresh! I suppose after a while you would have your favorite vendors and be able to get exactly what you wanted in season and for special events. I could get used to a great selection of fish, meats and vegetables. I am too often disappointed with the grocery stores near me.

One cool thing about the market is that you get to talk to the person working the shop. Everyone was very proud of their booth and products, encouraged me to try samples, and loved to talk about their product, their family and the market. The few farmer’s markets near us give us a bit of that, but it just wasn’t the same.

I think I could have spent the whole day there!

Posted in Travel

Travel tips

Before a trip I often scour the internet for travel tips to various places. Here are my tips, gleaned from my recent 10-day trip to Israel.

Packing cubes are a gift from God. I tried a simple set from Amazon basics, and I am hooked. A few zippered bags made it so easy to organize and pack for each part of my trip. Where have these been all my life?

Travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner, contact lens solutions and tubes of toothpaste last a lot longer than you think. Those quantities don’t seem much, but a bottle of each lasted us the whole trip. i brought extra, but never opened them. Good to know when you want to pack light.

Bring some instant coffee. My wife and I really look forward to our coffee in the morning, but quickly learned that whatever the hotel provides in your room will disappoint. Pack some instant from Starbucks.

A travel power converter is priceless when traveling overseas. Ours was light and affordable. It not only let us charge up our phones each night, but powered my wife’s hair dryer and curling iron each morning.

Pack snacks. I was pleased to learn that we would get two meals on the long flight from Miami to Vienna. I was not pleased at what they called a meal. I’m not even sure what some of that food was. Bring some fruit, nuts and bars. Your stomach will thank you.

I journal each day and love to use a fountain pen. I had no problem using a Kwaeco Sport with cartridges. I had no problem writing on the plane.

I brought along a money belt for my cash, credit card and passport. They weren’t very useful. Pants with zippered pockets worked better for me. I only brought along what I thought I would need for the day. Credit cards were welcome just about everywhere I went, so you don’t have to carry a lot of cash. My daily carry was about $100 cash, some local currency and one credit card. All the places we went welcomed American currency. Visa and MasterCard worked the best. I sometimes had problems with American Express.

By the way, you don’t have to let your credit card providers know about your travel plans. They let you know by text or email when your card is used away from home. If you have your phone in your pocket, they know it is you using your card.

I didn’t bring my computer on my recent trip and didn’t miss it at all. I was able to blog, navigate and WhatsApp with my phone. Leaving my computer and charger at home probably saved me five pounds in my luggage.

When you leave your country, just watch, listen and learn. I usually figured out what to do by watching the person in front of me. If I waited long enough, the announcement I didn’t understand was repeated in English. People are nice, helpful and friendly in every culture.

That’s all I’ve got for now. More later.

Posted in Israel, Travel

The sounds of Israel

So after spending 8 days in Israel and simply recording where we went each day, I now have time to stop and reflect on our amazing trip to the Holy Land. From the first moment, our tour guide, Tali, told us to take in our eight days with all our senses. I’ll begin with what I heard.

Twelve hours in the air from Miami to Vienna and then Vienna to Tel Aviv on Austrian Airline meant I had numerous chances to hear German followed by English instructions and updates on the plane. I took two years of German in high school plus two semesters in college. I may not remember much of the vocabulary, but surprisingly I could follow the conversation when the pilot let us know how far we were from our destination or what kind of food might be served next.

It was hard to get to sleep our first night at the hotel on the Sea of Galilee because of a large, loud party on the beach below us that didn’t break up till about midnight. I might not have minded had we been invited!

I sat in the front row of our tour bus, so I got to hear the wide variety of music our driver, Anatoli, played while on crowed city streets and highways between destinations. He switched between Hebrew talk radio, classical, Broadway show tunes, country, and a little techno thrown in for good measure.

From time to time we would be outside to hear a Muslim call to prayer. These were digital, not live. I am not sure I’ve ever heard one before and was surprised at how long a call lasted. Each seemed like a minute or more. We must not have been in Arabic locations, because I did not see many people bow in prayer.

A sea of tour busses surrounded us everywhere we went, filled with visitors from all over the world. As the groups passed, I heard Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian and English tour guides pointing out the sites and explaining some history behind each. Each person in our group wore a headset, too, and the voice of our tour guide was always in our ear, explaining what we were looking at and where we were headed next.

Sometimes I heard nothing. Silence. Some sites prohibited explanations, so we took it all in with our other senses. At some, reverence for the moment and respect for those praying or meditating dictated quiet. Silence has a way of accentuating the holy. It was very quiet at the Church of the Beatitudes. A nun made sure of that. It was also virtually silent at Mary’s house in the Church of the Annunciation.

Church of the Beatitudes
(See the water flowing from the altar)

It was not quiet at all in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. I thought the place was packed, but our guide said it was only about 60% of what she had seen. Crowds of people in long lines and constant conversation in every conceivable language surrounded us everywhere we went. We did not stay long, but it is a busy, busy place!

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

In some remote places like Qumran, Masada and Caesaria Philippi, I heard the songs of birds. Some where there because our guide brought a few crumbs to feed some of them. Others were just curious or up in the trees.

At the Western wall in Jerusalem I was surrounded by many speaking or singing prayers. They sat in chairs in front of the wall with prayer books or scripture open before them. Many sang psalms at the site of King David’s tomb as well. We didn’t spend a lot of time in those places, but I imagine that some who came spent a large portion of their day there.

The souvenir shop at the Jordan River baptismal sight had a selection of shofar (rams horn trumpets) you could try. I heard these being blown in the store and also several places along the way. I was the only one in our group to blow a few notes.

At Temple Mount, a vigilant voice broke up couples who were simply holding hands or had arms around one another for a picture, warning, “No hug! No touch!” No one had to be warned more than once.

A boat took us out onto the Sea of Galilee. Once out there, the pilot cut the engines, and I heard nothing but the breeze, a few birds and the sound of gentle waves against the side of the boat. I really enjoyed this calm, peaceful moment.

On our way from someplace in Jerusalem to some other place, we came across a family celebrating their three-year-old son’s first haircut. I didn’t know that was a thing. But they beat on drums, sang songs and released blue and white balloons into the air, too.

First haircut celebration

Other sounds included the hiss of the espresso machine at a market coffee shop, the sizzle of an omelette griddle at our second hotel, the enthusiastic description of so many dried fruit mixes at one market stall, and the endless invitations to check out the merchandise at each and every shop in the Arab market.

For me, the best sound was my own voice singing in St. Anne’s church by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The acoustics were amazing. A sung phrase would linger in the air for five seconds. So I could sing and then listen, sing and listen, and marvel at the rich sounds surrounding me.

St. Anne’s

Unfortunately, my days were peppered by voices in our group complaining about long lines, waits and walks during the day and hotel room problems at night. Each concern was legit, but come on, folks. The opportunity to walk where Jesus walked and see all those places I’ve only read about before is worth a little inconvenience. At least it was for me.

When I began writing this, I had no idea how many sounds I would recall. I suspect I’ll remember more, so there might be a part two.