How to Stop Packing So Much Crap When You Travel with Kids

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Later this week, Mariel, our four and three-quarters year old daughter, will finish her first year of school (!). Two days later, we will all (Francisco, Mariel, Orion, and myself–did I mention I’m seven months pregnant?) board a plane bound for Utah, where we’ll be working for a week, doing research for an article.

We will, no doubt, be jockeying for overhead bin space with other parents who are starting their summer travels. Before Francisco even starts grumbling about the bin hogs, wondering where he’s going to store his camera gear, we’ll have “Excuse us, please”‘d so many times past SUV strollers laden with The Things Parents Absolutely Can’t Travel Without that we’ll be tired before our plane takes off.

I applaud parents who travel with their kids because there are so many moms and dads who don’t do so; it seems too overwhelming to them. But I wish more moms and dads would realize they really don’t need to bring everything and the kitchen sink with them, especially when they’re traveling domestically. All of the items they’ve convinced themselves they can’t leave home without are so burdensome that they’re frazzled and hunched over and snapping at the kids and each other, ruining their vacations before they even begin.

Clothes bag for myself and two kids... for a three-day road trip.
Clothes bag for myself and two kids… for a three-day road trip.

I see these parents in airports and I want to walk up to them and say, “Really, you don’t have to pack so much crap.” Your kids don’t need all the things you think they need. Children are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. In fact, they are far more resourceful than you are. For them, anything can be turned into a toy. The emergency card in the seat pocket in front of you? Mariel has spent long stretches of time looking at the pictures and making up stories about what she thinks is happening. The barf bag? It makes for a great hand puppet. Besides, if you’re honest with yourself, the main reason you probably want to distract your kids is to ward off your own anxiety about whether they might have an on-board meltdown. As with most tasks and challenges of parenting, if you just let your kids inhabit their natural rhythm, they’ll do a fairly decent job of self-regulating. And when they don’t, then it’s time to pull out the window clings (which, by the way, fit MUCH better into your carry-on than the “educational” toy you packed).

One of the ways to pack less crap is to subject everything to the wants and needs test. Lay everything you want to take out on your bed. Now, look at each item one by one and ask yourself if you’re really going to need it, or if you’re packing it “just in case.” Most “just in case” items aren’t necessary. And even plenty of needs (the 32-count bag of diapers, for example) don’t actually need to be packed; you’d be better off picking them up once you’ve arrived at your destination. Decide what your list of non-negotiables includes and stick to it. Type it up, print it out, and refer to it each time you’re getting ready for a trip.

Once you’ve eliminated some of those “want” items and you’ve slimmed down your suitcase and carry-ons in the first round of ruthless packing, ask yourself the “Can I carry it comfortably?” question. If you can’t carry it comfortably, it doesn’t need to come with you. When you’re traveling with kids, you want to be agile and mobile, not burdened by two overpacked shoulder bags, a backpack, and a rolling suitcase. For me, packing for my family is a lot like clothes shopping: If it’s not comfortable, it’s not for me.

Finally, pack items that serve multiple functions and require minimal management. Rather than pack a blanket, a changing mat, a picnic blanket, and a scarf, I pack a 20-year old sarong that serves these and at least a dozen other purposes. Because it’s thin and dries quickly, I can wash it out in a sink when needed.

Inevitably, you will forget something you or your kids really do need. (This would happen, by the way, even if you overpacked). When this happens, consider it an excellent opportunity to teach your kids a lesson in creative resourcefulness.

TSA, flight delays, surly service… there are already enough reasons to be cranky when you’re traveling. Don’t carry so much crap that you make the experience even tougher on yourself and your kids.

Travel Hack: How to Get a Room When Expedia Says a Hotel is Fully Booked

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
We were landing in Cartagena when my seat mate turned to ask, “So, what do you do? What brings you to Colombia? Is it your first time?”

When I answered, “I’m a writer–mostly travel; I’m working on some articles about Cartagena; no, it’s not my first time,” he said he lives to travel and told me about his plans for his first visit to Colombia.

He had hoped, he said, to stay in the hotel where I was staying, Casa San Agustin, a luxury boutique hotel in Cartagena’s historic center, but when he tried to book a room through Expedia, he couldn’t do so because the system indicated that the hotel was sold out for the dates he wanted.

Expedia said rooms at Casa San Agustin weren't available. Expedia was wrong.
Expedia said rooms at Casa San Agustin (shown here) weren’t available. Expedia was wrong.

This was not, in fact, the case; the hotel had at least four rooms available for his arrival date (I know, because I toured four unoccupied rooms on that date). What he didn’t know, though– and what many travelers are not aware of–is that Expedia and its competitor booking engines (Kayak, Orbitz, Travelzoo, Hotels.com, and the like) aren’t actually the keepers of all the keys, as they’d like us to believe. They have access to only part of a hotel’s “inventory” (its rooms), so when you get a “SOLD OUT” message, it’s highly unlikely that that means the hotel’s total room inventory is actually occupied.

In other words, don’t believe what Expedia tells you. You can probably get a room at that hotel you’ve had your eye on. And you can probably even get it at the same rate that Expedia or the booking engine you’re using is advertising.

How? Simple: Call the hotel’s reservation line and explain that you were searching for a room on a booking engine, only to learn that the hotel is sold out for the dates you’re seeking. Ask if that’s the case; if it’s not, ask what categories of rooms are available. Inquire about the best rate they can offer, and ask what it includes (ie: WiFi, breakfast). If you’re eligible for any discounts (AAA, senior citizen, military), ask about those. And if you’re a member of a loyalty or rewards program, mention that as well. If the bottom line price you’re quoted is higher than the booking engine’s price, ask the reservations agent if it’s possible for them to match the booking engine’s quoted rate. More often than not, the hotel will match the rate.

Why? Because what most hoteliers won’t say aloud, especially if they have small hotels, is that they really would love to avoid listing themselves in booking engines. Why? They want the chance to establish business with you directly. They want to manage the terms of that business, and they want to capture your contact information so you’ll return to them in the future, rather than a booking engine. They won’t say this because, for many of them, the booking engines are an important source of business, and by opting out they lose market reach. It’s an uneasy compromise they make, and knowing this is your ace in the hole that will likely help you get the room you want.

Have a travel hack you’re willing to share? Tell us in the comments.

18 Tips from 18 Years of Travel

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

Traveling since 1994
Traveling since 1994
If my accounting is right (and it’s possible it’s not; I’m terrible with numbers), I’ve been traveling steadily now for 18 years.

This month, actually, marks the first time I traveled abroad on my own– to Costa Rica, on a scholarship to study Spanish.

It was there where I first marveled at the tendency to not obey traffic laws; experienced an earthquake; rode a chicken bus; and allowed myself to explore without a fixed plan.

I’ve never been quite the same since.

Travel is one of the single best decisions I’ve ever made (alongside learning Spanish, marrying Francisco, and having a child), and I’ve learned a lot from my wanderings in the world.

Here, then, are 18 tips and lessons learned during 18 years of travel. Some are travel-specific and some are good for life in general, but in either case, I hope you’ll find them useful for your own journeys.

Travel light.
Travel light.
1. Pack light. You really don’t need everything you think you need, and the lighter your load, the more easily you can move.

You can almost always get what you need wherever you are in the world, and if you can’t, you’ll be amazed by your ability to improvise.

2. Don’t think twice.
I’m not an impulsive decision-maker; I like to think through my options, even if I tend to do so quickly. When it comes to travel, though, I almost never think twice. To travel or not to travel? Always travel. There’s a sale on a flight to Portugal? I’m on that plane.

3. Stop listening to those voices warning you against the world’s dangers.
This does not mean to abandon common sense and sound judgment. But if you’re a reasonably good reader of other people and of situations, I’m personally not against taking the chance to trust in others’ goodness.

4. Eat the pigeon liver.
Rats with wings… that’s what pigeons are to me. But I was eating at the second best restaurant in the world and one of the more than a dozen courses placed before me was pigeon liver. “Just a bite,” the food writer next to me urged.

Gibnut in Belize
Gibnut in Belize

Having eaten grasshoppers in Mexico, gibnut in Belize, and God knows what else, what was a little pigeon liver?

5. Carry wet wipes.
You’ve just got to trust me on this one. They come in handy for more than you could possibly imagine.

6. Take care of yourself.
Recently, I’ve seen several people get sick– really sick–while traveling abroad, and in each case, it was because that person hadn’t taken care of himself or herself. Drinking too much and passing out in the grass next to the pool; not eating enough or at the right time and experiencing low blood sugar before collapsing in the aisle of the plane… these were completely preventable problems, but once poor decision-making set these problems into motion, they became severe medical situations that required emergency intervention and created distress and chaos for many people. Taking care of yourself will help you have a better trip and is the responsible thing to do.

7. Take lots of notes.
You think you’ll remember the most amazing meal you just ate, the name of the town where you experienced a spiritual breakthrough, or the year you visited, but memory is often flimsy and partial. If there’s something you really want to remember forever, write it down.

8. Don’t step off the ledge until you’re ready.
As a traveler and as someone who has worked as a tour leader, I know that travel tends to bring out both the best and the worst in people. We are more inclined to take risks than we are at home, and as tips 3 and 4 allude, I’m generally a fan of smart risk-taking while traveling. That being said, don’t push yourself so far outside your comfort zone that you do something stupid. If you’re not ready to bungee jump, parachute out of a plane, or eat fugu, don’t do it. Trust yourself and don’t allow someone else to make big decisions for you.

9. Play the 10 questions game when you’re confronted with something you don’t understand.
My friend Diane taught me the 10 questions game when I lived in China for a summer. Whenever you encounter something you don’t understand, don’t default to calling it “weird.” Challenge yourself to come up with 10 reasons why the practice may be so different from your own experiences and cultural points of reference.

10. Give in to the temptation to become an expat.

Francisco the expat
Francisco the expat
I’ve been an expat twice and I wouldn’t trade the experiences of living abroad for anything. You can always come home if life abroad doesn’t suit you, and if you do, you’ll be richer in knowledge and life experiences for having lived outside your home country.

11. If you get lost, view it as an adventure. (And always keep your lodging address in your pocket.)
Getting lost can lead to some incredible finds, so take three deep breaths and consider yourself on an adventure. If your surroundings look too sketchy or your own tolerance level is pushed to its limits, flag a taxi and get back to your home base to regroup.

12. Ask other people for help and ideas.
Travelers love to give advice and tend to dispense it generously. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them to ask for their favorite sights, restaurants, and activities, or their favorite places to travel.

13. Go local.
Take public transportation. Rent an apartment or couchsurf rather than book a hotel room. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of the same resources you’d use at home.

14. Keep mental landmarks.
This is particularly important if you like to feel that you’re in control of yourself, your situation, and your environment. Knowing where you are, even (especially) when you don’t speak the language can help you feel that you’ve got your bearings.

15. Share the experience.
Solo travel is fantastic, but traveling with a friend, partner, or family member can really enhance your relationship (it can also really test it… all part of the growth and enhancement….).

16. Travel with your kids.
Just smile and nod when people tell you it’s too difficult to travel with kids. In most cases, it’s not true. Travel with your kids, especially before they turn two (the age at which you have to pay full fare for airline travel). If a flight seems too big a step for you and your family, take a short road or train trip.

17. Don’t wait.
You’re probably not ever going to have enough money, time, or health to travel–at least not at the same time and in the right combination you’re waiting for–so please, don’t wait. Don’t put travel off because there probably won’t be a better time.

18. Give the gift of travel.
If you love travel and you feel it has added to your life significantly, do what you can to help other people travel. Give someone the gift of a passport or take someone you love on a trip, like travel blogger Sherry Ott. Read about her “Niece Project”… then come up with your own project.

What travel-won tips can you share? Please leave your lessons in the comments.

6 Reasons to Love Mexico City

CollazoProjects calls Mexico City home for part of the year, and though Mexico’s capital city is often overlooked by tourists, who are drawn instead to the eastern shores of Cancun or the western beaches of Baja California and Cabo San Lucas, it’s well worth a visit.

Here are a few reasons why:

6. Its architecture: Between the old buildings in the Centro Historico, the lavishly detailed buildings of the early 20th century, or the bold urban designs that have characterized Mexico City’s architecture since the 1970s, structural and design buffs will find Mexico City to be an architectural afficionado’s playground. And even someone without profound knowledge of architecture will find many of the city’s buildings stunning. (photo: weisserstier: creative commons)

5. Its transportation: Though Mexico City is one of the largest metropolises in the world, it also has a well-developed public transportation system that makes traversing the city easy– not to mention cheap. The city’s subway system, built in the 1970s, covers a large portion of the capital and a ride costs just 2 pesos, approximately 20 cents. The city also has an impressive modern bus system and passengers can enjoy a number of other alternatives, including micros (mini-buses), inexpensive taxis, and, more recently, a bicycle rental program.

4. Its markets: Mexico City has maintained a strong market tradition, and across the capital you’ll find a mind-boggling number of markets that specialize in almost every product you could imagine: flowers, food, clothing, DVDs/CDs, handcrafts, and much more. Markets are a great place to get a feel for the intersection between the past and the present.

3. Its art. It’s hardly surprising that Mexico’s capital has an impressive number of museums of all sorts: art, anthropology, photography, and many more. But perhaps even more impressive and interesting is Mexico City’s well-developed public art scene. Some of the best art can be found in the city’s subway stations, where glass vitrines exhibit photography, drawings, installation art, and video art.

2. Its food: Of all Latin American countries, Mexico’s food is perhaps the most varied and most complex. Incorporating a palate-stimulating array of spices, vegetables, meats, and cooking styles, Mexican food goes way beyond tacos.

1. Its dynamism: The past and the present. The traditional and indigenous alongside the intensely cosmopolitan. Ranchera and reggaeton. The city bears an incredible number of contradictions that could easily create tension with remarkable ease.

Where in the Web Are We?

It’s been a busy week for CollazoProjects!

If you’ve missed any of these projects we’ve just finished, just click on over and get caught up!

Why Travel is the Most Patriotic Act You Can Do: In celebration of July 4, Julie reflects upon why she travels to Cuba (hint: it’s not the rum or the sun) and why travel is the most patriotic act an American can make.

From the article:

I believe that the act of traveling and then sharing is the most American, the most patriotic, the most democratic act an ordinary citizen can take.”

On another Cuban note, we want to give you advance notice that Francisco will be teaching a Cuban cooking class at the Whole Foods Culinary Center on Bowery Street in New York City on October 24.

The three hour class (6:30 PM-9:30 PM) promises to be informational, hands-on, fun, and tasty– all in Francisco’s usual signature style! Be sure to keep your eye on the Culinary Center’s calendar and sign up page: tickets are sure to go fast and there are only 12 spots in the class!

Top 10 Tips for Stretching Your Travel Dollar : A two-part series on MatadorPulse with Julie’s suggestions about how you can make your vacation dollar go the extra mile. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.

Tips for Traveling in “Dangerous” Places: As we get prepared for a Colombia trip and hear “Be careful down there!” one too many times, Julie offers some practical tips for traveling safely in “dangerous” areas… and anywhere, for that matter. From the introduction to the article:

“…our perceptions of what make a place seem dangerous are shaped by many factors—the hyper-dramatic media more interested in getting a quick and juicy story rather than sticking around to figure out the complicated dynamics of a place; government agencies driving their own political and economic agendas; and rumors that have taken on a life of their own. All of these are dubious sources of useful information for the traveler getting ready to depart for a place that’s perceived as having a high danger factor.”

Finally, Julie’s guest blog about living your dream life appeared on Christine Gilbert’s website earlier this week. Be sure to check it out!

Thanks for visiting and have a great week!- Francisco & Julie

Cuba postcard photo: wedgienet
Colombian girl photo: Philip Bouchard