TRAVEL AGENT vs. TRAVEL "ARTISAN"

Your dream vacation is waiting

Your dream vacation is waiting

Different types of travel require different types of travel planning. When I describe what I do, people commonly respond with "so, you're a travel agent." While, Explorateur Travel isn't your typical type of travel agency, there is a lot of overlap. I'd like to consider myself a travel consultant, but even that doesn't always seem to work. If I actually had to pick a name for what we do, I would like say that we are travel artisans. We thoughtfully create each itinerary to provide memorable experience based on style and local culture.

So to help you decide what kind of planning assistance you may need (if any), here is a breakdown of what an agent does, and how we are different.

Do you prefer an active vacation?

Do you prefer an active vacation?

Travel Agents...

  • Book all travel through a back office system
  • Work with a line of specific corporate companies which is determined by their partnerships
  • Are incentivized to book certain lines or routes for commission purposes
  • Provide luxury options and discounts based on company collaborations
  • Can be instrumental in booking group travel

 

Experience the culture of a place by a local cooking class!

Experience the culture of a place by a local cooking class!

Explorateur Travel...

  • Provides a la carte options of planning services that are selectable based on budget and need
  • Focuses on experiential accommodation and activity options (through home sharing, campgrounds, hotels, etc.)
  • Allows you receive an itinerary after sharing a few preferences and a click of a button
  • Tailors itineraries based on specific interests of clients from beginning to end
  • Makes travel planning fast, easy, and affordable with transparent pricing
  • Finds the "hidden gems" of a city to provide clients with memorable experiences
Have questions? Give us a ring!

Have questions? Give us a ring!

While I have been a travel agent previously, I found that I wasn't able to be as hands on with each client because it was more transactional and not focused on the meat and potatoes of the day to day itinerary of a vacation. Travel agents provide an excellent service for groups looking to book together, luxury trips, or even someone that may be looking for a more traditional experience. The good news is, that there are plenty of resources to help plan your trip, regardless of your travel style!

So reach out...after all, your vacation is a blank canvas that we can't wait to get our hands on! To check out our easy and affordable a la carte menu, click HERE!

HOW TO STAY ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD FOR FREE

One of the questions that I have been asked the most about by two month trip to Europe was "how?" and it tends to go a little something like this:

"How can you afford to travel for two months? Wait...you stayed in Italy for a month for free? How?! You're staying with a family that you found online? How did you hear about them? What are you going to be doing? How can I do this?!"

So here is how it all happened, and how you can travel anywhere for free...with a little research and hard work along the way.

WorkAway is a website where hosts can post jobs ranging from a few days to a few months that they need done in exchange for accommodations, and sometimes even meals. Many hosts advertise their need for handiwork, nanny work, or English teaching. Since, I'm not good with tools and not so great with kids (just being honest), I didn't think I would have much to offer to any host. After creating my profile and listing my desired destinations, I decided to take a step back and revisit the idea another time.

A few days later, I received a notification from an Italian family looking for someone to help with their children. I seriously contemplated responding enthusiastically, but I knew I wasn't the person that would be the best fit for their family. However, the site provides "similar" postings, and I saw a picture of an Italian home owned by a Californian and British couple asking for some assistance refurbishing an old farmhouse. The house was located just one hour away from Rome and a mere 45 minute train ride to Florence. Their profile advertised that they were looking for 5 hours of work per day and they would be happy to drive their workers to a nearby train station or airport for side trips for weekend side trips. It sounded perfect! I knew it was a long shot to ask if I could help in any way, but I reached out hoped for the best and in a bazaar way, I just knew something special hung in the balance of that email.

The next day, I got a response from the husband letting me know that they were full for the year, unless I knew how to sew. Now, I had always thought that my stint at SCAD for fashion design wouldn't yield much of a result, but all of a sudden, it was the most valuable education that I had undergone! When I responded that I had actually been sewing since I was 8 years old, they eagerly agreed to host me for the coming October.

In the months leading up to my trip, I was nervous, anxious and excited. What if they were weird? or demanding? or the house was sketchy? Here's where I relied on WorkAway once more to calm my nerves. I had read over 30 reviews from other WorkAwayers on this specific home, all giving praise for what a great experience they had.

So I prepped, I packed, and I headed to Moiano, Italy. Alex (the wife) greeted me warmly as soon as I hopped off the train. During my month he taught me the ways of conserving water, energy, and vegan cooking. We watched the political debates together, drank tea by the fire, perused the local markets, cooked, had intense decorating discussions regarding fabrics, and spent time just enjoying each other's company. I grew close to her two daughters, and spent time learning about their lives and interests. I was able to see the teamwork and time that it took to harvest the olives for fresh oil, and enjoy plenty of their previous harvest on fresh Italian bread. Even though I was sewing the majority of each day, I was able to enjoy my time, gain new friends, and absorb the culture of the area.

I'll never forget the fall that I spent with this family in Italy, and I also promised to return when I left...which I have every intention of doing. Travel changes people, and I am forever changed by their hospitality and the opportunity to stay in such a beautiful place.

If you are looking for an opportunity to help others and experience the world on a low budget, I suggest you check out these sites...but be warned, because the next thing you know, you may be volunteering on an elephant sanctuary in Thailand!

Check out some more photos of our time and adventures together in the gallery below:

MY TOP 10 EURO-TRIP MOMENTS (Part 1)

"Was it amazing?!"

"How was your trip?"

"Tell me all about it!"

These are all questions that I've gotten a lot since I've been back from my amazing trip throughout Europe. My short answers are: "Oh my gosh...yes!", "Fantastic and unreal" and ...well, the last one has had me stumped. Since it would take me a boringly long amount of time to share "all" about my (nearly) three months in Europe, I have selected the top 10 influential and memorable moments to share with you.

In no particular order (because, honestly...I can't fathom trying to rank one as more amazing than another), here they are:

1. Malta was by far the most unique pick of the trip, but it was well worth the risk. I actually don't know anyone that has been to Malta, so I had to do a lot of research before we arrived by ferry from Sicily. However, I hit the jackpot when I found a recommendation for Ta Karolina. Our dinner table was literally on the seawall, we had a bottle of amazing wine, an unreal dinner of rabbit and duck, and a great view for under $60 dollars. You read that right...$60. What topped it off, was that it started pouring at the end of our meal, forcing everyone under a tiny awning where the waiters showed their customer service skills and offered free coffees for us while we waited. To avoid the rain a bit more, we scampered into another bar that had no idea how to make a martini (cocktails aren't Malta's specialty). We had a great time teaching the bartender and chatting them up while the rain slowed enough for a taxi to grab us up.

2. I have a huge "company crush" on EatWith, which is a company/app that is revolutionizing how tourists eat and experience a city's culture. In Venice, I spent the night in a twinkle-light lit courtyard with 12 strangers who were hungry for an authentic Venetian meal in a local's home, and that is exactly what we got. Click here to read the full story on how this night changed how I will eat forever.

3. Capri's allure is no secret, but I happened to be there on a weekend where it rained the majority of the time. I know it might not sound like a recipe for a "top 10 moment", but stay with me here. Luckily for me (and you), there are plenty of spas to duck into to seek refuge when the beaches aren't "peacocking." To top it off, I hadn't slept, I had been suffering a cold, and experienced a cancelled ferry due to weather when I wandered into the Hotel Quisisana and booked a heavenly massage.  I ended up spending the morning drinking tea and lounging in their heated mosaic tile chairs while watching the rain fall outside the "relaxation area." After that, I maximized on the few sunny hours that I had by going to eat at Ristorante Mamma overlooking the rocky coast and met their dynamic concierge who invited me to check out a 5 star hotel for my clients. Since that's not the kind of invitation you turn down, I spent my afternoon on the heavenly terrace of the Hotel Punta Tragara and drinking a divine Chardonnay in the sunshine. I have never been more relaxed, and I (hands down) know where I will be booking my next stay on Capri!

4. Rome is another spot that gets plenty of attention, but few tourists muster the gusto to hop on a scooter and zig-zag their way into the traffic of this busy city. ScooteRoma gave me one of my favorite moments when I hopped on a scooter with a Roman local and easily zipped around to some of the most incredible spots in the city. It didn't hurt that my guide also treated me to one of the most amazing cappuccinos of my life at Pasticceria Linari.

5. On one of my last nights in Tuscany, I was invited by one of the ex-pats to go to a 4 course dinner called WineShineDine, which is hosted once a month in Cortona, Italy. For those who love the book/movie "Under the Tuscan Sun," this is the town that inspired it. Of course, I gladly accepted! I was greeted with a wine tasting in the town square from Chiocciolli Altadonna, then was escorted to the Delbrenna jeweler (which is underground in an old wine cellar!), handed champagne with gold and silver flecks in it while I shopped for something sparkly, and then directed to a dinner full of live music with copious wine pours and 4 courses of heaven on earth. For anyone staying stateside, they have this dinner in Newport Beach, California!

6. It's not everyday that a best friend meets you across the globe in Greece, but when it does happen, it is bound to be a great time. One of the best meals that I had my ENTIRE trip was spent in the main square of Naxos town with KJ (check this blog out on our trip together) at Scirocco one their last night of the season. We ordered such a large platter that the waiter wouldn't let us order anything else to go with it. Jokes on him... because we topped it off with dessert crepes from a restaurant on the water after! It wasn't just the food that made this night great. We laughed, we cried, we laughed until we cried...it was just one of those nights for the books!

Most of these moments take a little bit of backstory, which is why I've decided to break this into two parts (so that you aren't daunted by the length of all 10 at once). I hope you enjoyed recapping some of these memories with me, and I hope that you join in on Part 2 coming tomorrow!

THE GELATO BLINDNESS EPIDEMIC...IT'S A THING!

The Gianduiotto at  Da Nico  in Venice

The Gianduiotto at Da Nico in Venice

There's something very concerning sweeping the country of Italy. This rampant epidemic is infiltrating the populations of tourists and locals alike, and there is only one diagnosis appropriate for the symptoms. I know this illness as 'Gelato Blindness."

Now, you probably think I'm kidding. It's gelato for goodness sake! The creamiest, most heavenly treat (I would argue) in the world. How can this cause blindness? Keep with me here.

It all started when I was walking around Venice during my first segment of the trip. I noticed that almost every third person was walking with gelato and walking through busy (and very narrow) pedestrian walkways. This continued throughout the cities of Rome, Florence, Cortona, Montepulciano...and onto many more.

Here are the symptoms that you should be aware of:

The first symptom: The stare. There's a sense of wonder that sweeps across the face of the eager recipient of the mounding cup or cone. The hopeful gaze at the newly purchased treat is the first sign.

Gelateria  Buonocore  in Capri

Gelateria Buonocore in Capri

The second symptom: Panicked licking. Italy is most popular in the summer-time, which leaves those partaking in this delight in a sense of panic to eat quickly before it melts into a gooey puddle. Who wants sticky hands while perusing the gift shops, museums, or following a tour guide...no one! Plus...gelato is too good to let melt. So the panic leads to mania, and the rabid licking of the cone begins.

The third symptom: The stumble. I'm not saying that gelato is causing euphoric dillusion (although, a case could be made for that too), but what I am saying is that the panicked licking is the stage before complete disaster strikes. Most every person that I see eating gelato seems to be drunkenly stepping into the streets because of the extreme focus that they have in enjoying every last lick. I've witnessed people bump into strangers, drop bags, and completely block roads because priority #1 is wrapped in a piping hot, thin waffle cone and destroying their ability to function. What's even more terrifying is that there is no predictable time of day for this epidemic to hit because gelato seems to make a fine addition no matter the hour. 8 AM? Well, why the heck not get a banana and cappuccino double cone and call it breakfast? It's pretty much the same thing.

Best gelato of my life in Capri

Best gelato of my life in Capri

I'm writing this to fairly warn anyone who may fall victim to this terrifying travesty that is sweeping the boot-shaped country. If you are visiting Italy and have a sweet tooth, consider yourself at high risk. You may not hear about this on the news (call it what you want..but it smells like an effort to protect the reputation of these artisans and their goods *wink*) but I wanted to personally make everyone aware of the very real ramifications of indulging abroad.

Enjoy responsibly, my fellow travelers!

Gelato is not the only Italian sweet threatening the welfare of humanity. To learn about how limoncello can ruin lives, click here!

*Note: This article should not be used in replacement of medical advice from a doctor, nor should it be taken seriously. All parties enjoying gelato recreationally should consume responsibly and with full awareness.

 

 

 

WHEN IN ROME....EXPLORE AS ROMANS DO: MY EXPERIENCE WITH SCOOTEROMA.

When I decided that I would be re-visiting Rome, I knew that I had to find a different way to see the city than I had before. I had been to Rome twice, and it was the second visit that made me fall in love...I couldn't even imagine what the third visit would bring!

And then I found ScooteRoma.

Yes, it is exactly what you are thinking. I fully committed to the Roman way of life, and decided to explore the city by scooter ("motorino" if you are Italian). As a note, if you are feeling nervous, they have more than just scooter tours! I actually found them through their adorable instagram account that I highly recommend you follow just for kicks.

What I discovered in my three hours with ScooteRoma, is that you can explore all corners of the city efficiently (and without further eviscerating my feet). I loved the thrill of weaving in and out of cars (I truly didn't think that I would), rushing through alley ways, and navigating to the front of traffic by snaking through traffic. Considering that I had to buy new sandals on the way to meet Mimmo (my Roman tour guide) because my feet were hurting so much, this relaxing ride was more than welcome.

Mimmo met me at a central spot and had my helmet ready to go. He was nice enough, not only to wait for me as I arrived flustered and late, but to also stop for coffee at a fantastically local cafe mid-tour and provided me with some sugary treats to fuel my adventures. A cappuccino and cream filled pastry was exactly what I needed to set the tone for my day whipping through the city's streets!

I had planned on walking to the Piazzale Garibaldi to get a view of the city..but Mimmo checked it off my list without even knowing. He took me to the "secret" spots, while also passing through the popular Roman landscapes. I was able to see the Roman forum, the "keyhole" to Rome, the orange garden in Parco Savello, and (what felt like thousands) more in between.

There are tours, and then there are tours...this my friends, is worth it. I'm not all for following a tour guide holding an umbrella upside down to mark where they are in the crowds. I can assure you that ScooteRoma provides a more intimate way to see Rome in a way that a Roman would every single day.

So why not hop on?!

7 EASY TIPS ON MAKING A KID-FRIENDLY ITINERARY

Traveling with kids is a rewarding, fulfilling, and yet often a complex process. Many parents want to share the wonderful world of travel with their kids, but it can be hard to help kids understand what they are seeing, where they are going, and why they are not following their normal schedule. Throw in time zone changes, unique menu options, and a lack of daily comforts... and there can be some stress! Some kids may just roll with the punches that travel throws their way, but others may have a harder time adapting. Below are some tips that can help make traveling easy on both the parents and kids, while creating memories of a lifetime.

1. Inquire on input. I always remember being asked about what I wanted to get out of my trip, which made every adventure even more meaningful and memorable. Obviously, I didn't always get the winning vote, but many times I was able to help create the plan, which made me feel involved in the process. If your kids don't know much about the area, try showing them some fun YouTube videos, colorful pictures, share some stories, and get them excited to see something...and then find out what that something is!

A great scavenger hunt topic is finding new fruits IN the local market

A great scavenger hunt topic is finding new fruits IN the local market

2. Turn your trip into a treasure hunt. It's not always easy for kids to buy into going wherever their parents tell them. If a child hasn't heard of Florence, or Barcelona, or London...then what do they care about what they see?  I have found that giving kids a challenge can often entice their interest and intrigue them enough to play along. Because of this, I have tailor-made scavenger hunts for my clients with kids so that they can learn a bit of history, feel the fulfillment of checking items of a list, all while documenting all they saw for parents to maintain a keepsake for years to come...win, win! As a note, these will soon be available for download on the site!

3. Beat the jet lag. This goes for kids and adults, but particularly kids. No one likes getting off a sleep schedule (heck, don't mess with me after a trans-Atlantic flight), but it is important to maintain momentum. Nothing shakes off the cobwebs like keeping moving. Basically, check in, drop the luggage, and move onto something completely engaging and enthralling to distract the whole family from the fact that you would rather be snuggled up and sleeping yourself into a funky schedule for the rest of the trip. This may be an early night in for everyone, but pushing through that initial wave of exhaustion will help you set your clock for the rest of your trip.

Photo credit:  Walks of Italy

Photo credit: Walks of Italy

4. Treat yourselves. It's vacation! You may not normally "sugar up" the family midday or after dinner (everyone has a different system) and I'm not telling anyone how to parent, but I'm just saying that a gelato in Italy is a pretty swell treat for not acting like a stinker after a flight halfway across the world (I mean, I'll behave for a creamy scoop). This may mean an exotic treat, extra iPad time, staying up later than normal, or even finding a playground among a busy city. Regardless of what it is, find some options in advance that are a unique experience for a kid on "vaca" and help find a positive reinforcement option for your child being a trooper!

5. Make time for breaks. I realize that this may seem like a no-brainer for anyone who has children, but it the prioritization to do nothing can tend to take a backseat during a chock-a-block full trip. Remember that you are on vacation. This is a time to prioritize your positive experiences, relaxation, and overall happiness. It may seem like the end of the world to stop for 30 minutes to cool off, grab a sandwich, have a drink...but is it really? Running 30 minutes late will rarely throw of an entire day, but an ornery child can easily derail your full itinerary in the blink of an eye (or full meltdown in public). If you are feeling like everyone is running on fumes, take the time to recharge, and don't feel guilty for putting your family first. If you miss seeing one monument, painting, or statue... I doubt it will ruin the entire trip!

6. Enjoy the local resources Not every family is traveling with an open-ended budget, and even those who are will enjoy finding a frugal option now and then! If you have a kitchen where you are staying, stock it full of snacks in advance. Also, refill any reusable water bottles when possible (read up on if the water in the city is drinkable, and don't assume that it is not). Lastly, find interesting options that could save some cash! Is there a market with any food stands? Are to-go meals cheaper than sitting down? These are options that are actually very culturally dependent and can save you some serious cash if you know the tips and tricks of a location. And all that cash you save? I'm thinking you might be treating yourself with a nice bottle of wine as a victory dance that everyone survived (and dare say, enjoyed) the vacation!

Find a local park to explore and get some energy out!

Find a local park to explore and get some energy out!

7. Find open space to explore! There are kids everywhere you go, and they all have the same level of energy, curiosity, and need to explore. We are so lucky to live in a time with so much information readily available to us. There are so many blogs on family travel for specific locations that you are sure to find great options for playgrounds, parks, and activities that may be outside the normal tourist itinerary. It seems that kids have less of a language barrier than adults and can adapt to various situations quickly, making a local playground a perfect place to experience the culture of the spot you are visiting. I suggest finding a spot to "regular" each morning during your trip for kids to get the energy out and to get ready for a day of exploring.

Just remember that if all doesn't go to plan, make another plan! I've been guilty of letting obstacles give me the blues, but that doesn't change anything. It's best to have a few back up options in your back pocket so that if someone needs a nap (no judgement if that person happens to be a parent) or you just aren't in the mood to do what you planned, you can switch gears without throwing off your day.

Do you have kid-friendly travel tips? We'd love to hear them!

 

3 TIPS TO FINDING GREAT RESTAURANTS

There's been quite a trend in my blogs lately, and it has to do with my favorite way to experience the culture of a location. You may have guessed it...food! I have no shame in this topic. I. LOVE. FOOD.

Tiramisu in Madrid

Tiramisu in Madrid

Food is the foundation to all of my itineraries. I lay the groundwork with three solid meal choices per day (maybe even an acclaimed coffee shop and snack stop), and then find experiences and sites near those restaurants. I take food VERY seriously. I've said it before, and I'll say it again...I've never met anyone who has planned a trip to Italy without making a point to indulge in the pasta or pizza. I think that this example, while very cliche, makes my point quite nicely.

This logic is exactly why I spend the bulk of my time planning on researching restaurants. The research pays off, and I am going to share my secrets with finding the perfect gastronomic delights!

1. Don't trust Yelp. I should note two things here: 1) this is a rule that applies more with international travel and 2) I don't mean specifically and exclusively Yelp. I am referring to all the review sites that tend to be a perfect beacon of light towards great meals in the U.S., but don't always work in other countries. Yelp and the likes aren't popular everywhere, and therefore, most reviews tend to be written by tourists. If a restaurant is #1 with hundreds of reviews in English, you are most likely going to be sitting with many Americans and wondering why you took an international flight to sit next to someone from Nashville, TN. Nothing against anyone from the Volunteer state, but it just may not be the authentic experience you were hoping for. As a last note on this point (and minor clarification), it isn't that all places that are popular with tourists are bad, but depending on their location they may be able to get away with lesser quality because they know they will always have guests knocking on their doors. For example, I learned why Parisians had a stereotype of being rude while eating at a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower. There was no incentive to provide excellent service, or food, because their tables were full just by catching the eye of hungry tourists during their site-seeing around town. Your best bet is to wander off the main streets and dip into a place that entices your tastebuds.

Steak frites in Paris

Steak frites in Paris

2. Trust your gut. Have you ever walked by somewhere and just known that you were meant to eat there? As if there was a gravitational pull towards their menu? I have actually been en route to a restaurant and walked past a cute courtyard and derailed my entire evening. And you know what? It was perfect. Better than perfect...it was kismet! It also turned out that the restaurant that I wanted to had been packed that night and was full of tourists. Instead, what I found was a historical nook away from the world where I only heard one table speaking English...my own! We had found a gem, and I will forever return and suggest that restaurant to anyone visiting that city because of the hospitality, food, and incredible background of the building.

3. Get busy reading blogs! Not every blogger has the same tastes or insight, but that is what makes the blogging world so helpful. I read close to dozens of blogs on each location I visit just to make sure that I am getting as much information about a place as possible before arriving. This removes the intimidation of travel, but also provides me with time-saving tips to get the real "meat and potatoes" of a city. I will compare suggestions on blogs to on-line reviews (taking it with a grain of salt, per my recommendation on #1), and continue my search until I feel like I have found the best matches for the budget, ambience, and geographic location that I am seeking. After all, the information is free and available, so it may be better to invest time than waste the coin on a meal that was mediocre.

If you don't have the time to search, compare, and plot...that's what we are here for! We can take the searching off your plate (pun intended) and tailor your itinerary dreams specifically to your style. Our team will read countless blogs, reviews, magazine articles, and forums to make sure that we get it "just right." And we promise...we are good at more than just eating.

WHAT KIND OF TRAVEL?!

I feel it in the air…do you? There’s a change coming…a big one.

Travel is changing.  People used to turn to travel agents for expertise and planning. Nowadays, it seems that travel agents tend to focus more on luxury travel, which leaves every other traveler who isn’t booking 5 star resorts to fend for themselves.

The biggest shifts are that people are not only traveling more frequently, but at a younger age, and with a completely different agenda. Experiential travel is taking over the tourism world…

What kind of travel?!

I also use the term “experiential travel” in describing what Explorateur Travel focuses on, and I keep getting a lot of “what is that” and confused facial expressions. This type of travel can be better summed up by examples than a vague description.

Cappuccino at the famous Cafe de Flore

Cappuccino at the famous Cafe de Flore

Experiential travelers would rather sip a piping hot cappuccino with a fresh baked croissant while people watching at a sidewalk café instead of waiting hours in line to catch a moments view from the top of the Eiffel Tower (even though that view is quite breathtaking).

Need another example? How about visiting a vineyard during harvest season to help pick some grapes and then finishing the tour with a fine vintage grown in that very soil. Or renting an apartment (we love us some AirBnB and OneFineStay) near the markets so that you can cook with the local produce and freshest ingredients. Okay…okay…so not all experiential travel has to involve food (but, we wouldn’t complain if it did).

The vineyards of Toledo, Spain

The vineyards of Toledo, Spain

This type of travel is how Explorateur Travel came to be. We focus on finding you a cultural approach to travel, but it’s also important that we tailor the itineraries specifically to each traveler so that they are sure to make the best out of their trip. Our budget-friendly services can replace your hours of on-line research, after all, you’re busy living life!

Do you have any "experiential travel" examples? We'd love to hear them!

 

THE DANGERS OF STUDYING ABROAD

My mom cried. She thought I might die in a terrorist attack. I reiterated that I wanted to go to Europe, not the Middle East. In our current day reality, this may have been a threat that I would have put some legitimate thought into. However, my concern would have been fleeting and regardless, I still would have boarded that plane.

To back up a bit, I went to Florida State University (Go ‘Noles!). During freshman orientation, there are tons of break-out sessions that upcoming freshman can attend to find out how to maximize on their college years. I was eighteen, fresh-faced, naïve about the world, and had never traveled outside the country. Despite my mom’s comment that day as I peeled off to attend the informational session on the study abroad programs (“I’m not paying for that…I’ll go to another session), I went and listened to what the advisors had to say. Come Hell or high water, I was going to spend a semester overseas!

My mom was telling the truth. She didn’t pay for me to study abroad (which, of course, I did not initially believe since she was always willing to invest in anything academically focused). This is not to paint a negative picture about my mom at all, in fact quite the opposite. I learned more from her telling me “no,” than I ever would have if she had just agreed that my parents would foot the bill. Because my parents weren’t paying, I decided that I needed a loan. I didn’t know about terms, or interest rates, but I applied, I got approved, I signed my name on the dotted line, put my name in the hat for a summer in Italy, and got into the program.

9 years later, I came back to visit the FSU campus in Florence

9 years later, I came back to visit the FSU campus in Florence

So that was that. I was going to Italy! Now it was time to plan! I needed to get my passport, a student visa, luggage, books for classes, adaptors, and every other thing I was informed that I needed for the upcoming summer semester. Months, and a lot of checklists later, I rolled up to the American Airlines check-in counter with two HUGE suitcases, both weighing in at the maximum threshold. I looked like I was moving permanently, instead of just attending six weeks of classes.

I connected through Charlotte International Airport and met up with one of my best friends from my freshman dorm who had lived in Italy as a child while her dad was in the Navy (coincidentally, I ended up marrying he brother, so now she is my sister in-law and her father is my now father-in-law). We flew side-by-side across the ocean, and landed to find that our luggage didn’t make the trip. We ended up spending the first two days wearing our new classmates’ clothes, using their cosmetics, and not caring one bit. We were in ITALY!

Kalee and our first day in Italy in front of the Baptistery of San Giovanni

Kalee and our first day in Italy in front of the Baptistery of San Giovanni

Upon initial arrival, we all checked into our apartments. Somehow, we had thirteen students in one tiny, lackluster, poorly plumbed, and incredibly perfect apartment. We decided to have a “roomie” dinner where we all ended up enjoying too much wine, making our 8 AM orientation less-enticing than it would have been if we had solely suffered from an overdose of jet lag. I remember walking around that morning and seeing the Baptistery the first time and knowing that something in me had changed on a molecular level.

I spent the next six weeks wandering the streets of Florence. Every moment that I wasn’t in class, I was perusing the shops, drinking wine in the piazzas, and exalting the artwork that decorated the streets. As an outsider, I couldn’t imagine that Florentines ever become numb to the rich beauty of their city. In walking to a restaurant, you pass multiple Renaissance art pieces, monuments, and landmarks. Florence has a wealth of history, and I was cashing in all my chips to see it all before I left in June.

Our weekends contained trips to Rome, the Tuscan countryside, the Amalfi coast, Milan, Venice, and a myriad of small towns that create the allure that Italy has to offer its residents and tourists. Every town, every meal, every breath abroad changed my perspective on life and my expectation of what it was to “travel.”

The dangers of studying abroad were not imminent, physical, terrorism-rated, nor did they appear to be obvious, at first. In fact, I didn’t even realize what I was at risk of at any time during my semester in Italy. To clarify, nothing about my study abroad experience was actually dangerous or even slightly risky. However, the emotional danger was the fact that I was officially afflicted with a permanent case of wanderlust.

finally convinced my mom to visit Florence with me in 2014

finally convinced my mom to visit Florence with me in 2014

Travel in itself was not the problem. The conundrum was that anytime I was not traveling, I was either daydreaming about where I can visit next, or I found myself researching the next item to check off my bucket list. I have reason to believe that I am not alone in this. In fact, I now tend to see a lot of study abroad alums posting recent pictures of their excursions to Europe, further validating my perspective.

So here I am ten years later. I wish that everyone could have the pivotal experience that I was able to participate in during the summer of 2005, but I realize that is far from a reality. However, I can help others feel the same emotions that I had during those six weeks that I spent in Italy. This is exactly why Explorateur Travel exists. My goals include providing all aspects of experiential travel for those who want to “feel” the place that they are visiting. The focus is not merely to book travel, but to plan those small details that invoke an intense and permanent connection with the vacation destination.

IT’S NEVER TOO SOON FOR TULUM

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Ready to explore the town of Tulum!

Ready to explore the town of Tulum!

Most pictures that I have seen of Mexico tend to be around the main hotspots that we have all heard of: Cabo San LucasPlaya del Carmen, and Cancun. But one day, I was toying around onPinterest (Dangit, Pinterest…why do you have to be so addicting!), and came across a picture of lantern lit jungle tavern with a white sandy floor in a place picture referred to as “Tulum.” The next thing I found out about Tulum, was that it was a yogi’s haven. Now, I am not a yogi, but I am all for integrating wellness into a vacation. As I continued my Pinterest meandering, I saw images of bathing suit-clad travelers lounging on mattresses in the sand, while drinking something that I imagined to be cool, rum-filled, and delicious. I spiraled into an all-out vacation fantasy!

Tulum has apparently been a hideaway for travelers that want to avoid the chaos of the main resort towns, but want to experience the glory of local culture, no-fuss sunbathing, cenote swimming, and the pleasures of the many restaurants that are sprinkled along the main Tulum strip.

The idyllic Ahau Tulum eco-lodge Photo credit: Ahau Tulum

The idyllic Ahau Tulum eco-lodge
Photo credit: Ahau Tulum

Even getting to Tulum was enjoyable! Thanks to Delta, getting to Cancun from Florida was a breeze. However, fighting through the crowd of vendors in the airport who want your business, was not. Fortunately, I had reserved a shuttle with USA Transfers and they were perfectly prompt and professional. They even stopped at the 7-11 as we got on the highway so that we could enjoy a cold cerveza for the drive! So with Pacifico in hand, we settled in for our one and a half hour drive towards our beach hideaway.

By the time we arrived at our hotel, we were ready to see what this town had to offer us. As we walked up the sandy steps to the check in desk, we were greeted with champagne and a warm welcome. Customer service here was no joke. Honestly, Ahau Tulum’s staff was better than any I have ever experienced (and much more impressive than I expected from an eco-lodge).

Our dinner restaurant, Casa Banana Photo Credit: Casa Banana

Our dinner restaurant, Casa Banana
Photo Credit: Casa Banana

Even though our visit was in November (normally a dry month), we were met with unseasonably rainy weather. Because of this, the receptionist tempted me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: an essential oil massage in a hut on the beach. I anxiously accepted, and I am so glad that I did. I waited for my masseuse with the world’s most magical tea in the lounge area, where other guest were reading and hanging out. Within a few minutes, it was my turn to be pampered. For two hours, I listened to the waves crash against the shore and the pitter patter of the rain on a palm frond roof, while experiencing the most cathartic massage that has ever happened to my body. I’m talking about wobbly legs, woozy feeling, and make-no-sense kind of talking after this massage. I was useless to the world- apparently this is just how Tulum likes its guests!

Luckily, this warm welcome was the tip of the iceberg for the town of Tulum. The rain did not slow us down, and actually added to the novelty of visiting an actual rain forest! We ended our first day with a drizzly walk down the canopied road to a fantastic dinner at Casa Banana. If you ever have the chance to diner here, I would absolutely suggest it. We waited for a table by the bar, while enjoying artisanal, fresh, and unique cocktails. My husband and I both enjoyed perfectly cooked steaks and grilled vegetables that were prepared over an open wood-fire grill.

To end the day, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Tulum goes to bed quite early. This really is heaven! It was early to bed for me- after all, I had sun salutations with the hotel’s yogi early in the AM….Namaste.

THE “EXPERIENCE” OF DINING IN MADRID

In the United States, the average family tends to eat between 6-8 PM with a typical bedtime of 8-10 PM. When on vacation, it wouldn’t be abnormal to have a little variance in this schedule. However, I never expected dinner time to extend into the late night when I am usually snuggling up with a book and a cup of tea.

When my husband told me about a childhood memory of how his family was unable to find a restaurant to eat dinner at 10 PM in Malaga, I truly thought he was exaggerating. Then this April, I was the one wandering the streets of Madrid at 9:30 PM, hungry and being turned away time and time again. How could the Spaniards eat so late? Aren’t they starving by the time they get to the restaurant? Don’t they have to get to sleep? And why is every restaurant packed to capacity?

Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that lunch is the main meal in Madrid. You can see business men and women enjoying their mid-afternoon meal until around 2-3 in the afternoon. So no wonder they aren’t hungry until later!

Eating out is not just a convenience in Spain (as it tends to be in the U.S.), but it is an intense social occasion. Lunches and dinners last for hours – filled with multiple courses and varying beverages. We sat next to a table of four locals who sat for hours and gradually made their way through croquettes, paella, and dessert accompanied with cava, sangria, and then finally onto coffee. Therefore, the restaurants typically only host one seating per evening and have no problem filling their tables, much less turning those away that didn’t have the foresight to make a reservation in advance. If you are eating in Spain on a Friday or Saturday, I highly encourage you to make a reservation or you may end up wandering the streets and hoping that someone missed their 9:30 PM reservation.

With that being said, no matter what the time was, our food was incredible, fresh, and served with a healthy side of delicious Sangria!

PERUSING THE MARKETS OF PARIS

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Many people travel in a way that allows them to “put checks in the block.” By this, I mean that if they have a week in one location, each day is packed with museums to see, places to eat, and little time to meander and simply absorb the culture. Fortunately, it seems that the cultural focus of travel is becoming increasingly prevalent – particularly with millennial travelers.

While in Paris with a girlfriend, we were determined to spend our time outside of the typical itinerary of Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Louvre (don’t get me wrong, we did those too!) by wandering around the local markets. Navigating to and from these markets took us out of our comfort zone, and allowed us to enjoy the true culture of each neighborhood.

We started by taking the Metro to the Marche les Puces (which includes 15 markets!). Unless you are prepared and directionally aware, I would suggest considering taking an Uber or cab to this area since the metro exit isn’t necessarily in the best area of town.

I can assure you that if you are looking for something, they most likely have it! However, you may have to dedicate a day to finding it. The items at Marche Antica are incredibly diverse including: fabulous fashions from Hermes, Chanel, and Yves St. Laurent, chandeliers, old musical instruments, and restored furniture. It is easy to lose track of where you’ve been and frankly, we didn’t mind that!

When returning to the center of Paris, we decided to continue our shopping by strolling through the food market of Montorgueil. There are few things that smell better at the end of a tiring day than a pop-up stand making crepes! Of course, not all items are prepared to eat on site but a few are. Most items include fresh local produce, fish, crustaceans, and flowers (for color). Your senses will be overwhelmed, confused, and you will most likely leave hungry. Luckily, turn the corner to move onto Rue Petits Carreaux and almost any culinary request can be granted at the dozens of cafes and bistros lining the street.

I encourage visitors of Paris to immerse themselves in the culture by perusing the goods of the many markets. To find the markets that best suit your needs, use these resources:

http://www.timeout.com/paris/en/shopping/the-best-markets-in-paris
http://www.marcheauxpuces-saintouen.com/1.aspx
http://travel.cnn.com/paris-shopping-guide-061506

KEEP CALM AND "CARRY ON"

Everyone packs differently and everyone has different priorities when traveling. These tips are a few that I abide by in order to make sure that I get to enjoy the “getting there” portion of my vacation, and not just the final destination.

  1. “Baby blockers”- or soundproof headphones. I truly mean no offense to anyone that is traveling with a young child, but a tearful flight can deprive a cabin of travelers from some much needed R&R. Throw on some headphones and settle in with a good book – you’ve got yourself an in-flight oasis.
  2. Abide by the TSA policies and pack the Ziplocs. It is always helpful to keep a few of your toiletries in your carry on but make sure that they are in a clear bag or you may end up having to toss them before you even board your plane. This is a good place to store your lotion, some Evian facial spray, make-up necessities, and clearly marked vitamins/medicines. However, each passenger is allowed one clear plastic bag, so if you don’t need it for the flight, go ahead and stash the items in your checked luggage.
  3. • Avoid getting cold feet. During the summer, it is tempting to throw on sandals for a flight, but the temperature of the cabin can tend to be a lot lower than the outdoors. If you know you get cold easily, throw some socks in your carry on for cozy sleeping. My favorite thing to do is to pack a flexible pair of flats that I can put on and still be able to walk to the bathroom.
  4. Don’t get caught with your pants down! Prior to my first trans-Atlantic adventure, I had no idea what to pack. In yet another life-lesson moment, I learned the necessity of packing some extra underpants when my luggage arrived two days after I did. Make sure to tote some items that would help you feel “fresh” in the event that your luggage gets lost along the way.
  5. A toothbrush. Never underestimate how a fresh mouth can change your mood and make you feel ready to site see at your final destination.
  6. A (wearable) blanket. Most international flights provide a light blanket, but in the event that you get cold quite easily, don’t hesitate to throw a pashmina or scarf in your bag to take the place of an airline blanket.
  7. BYOB. It you are like me, vacation starts once you get to the airport (maybe even before). I always bring 2-3 mini bottles just in case the beverage service is running behind. In addition, some airlines don’t provide complimentary alcoholic beverages, and by bringing my own I can always guarantee a mid-flight cocktail.

After all that…sit back and enjoy your flight!

WE CAN ALL LEARN A THING OR TWO FROM ICE CUBE…

Photo Credit: Ice Cube Images

Photo Credit: Ice Cube Images

As the artist Ice Cube says, “take a step back and examine your actions because you are in a potentially dangerous or sticky situation that could get bad very easily.” This statement couldn’t be more accurate when deciding whether to opt. for more data while traveling. In our world of smart phones, we are heavily dependent on travel apps, maps, and Googling things. We have become so contingent on our phones, in fact, that we no longer plan where to go for restaurants but instead rely on an app with reviews to locate a restaurant for us.

The good news is that smart phones and tablets have airplane modes readily available for the preservation of data use. The bad news is that we can do almost nothing while in this mode. The confusion comes into play when we don’t know what to turn on or off and then we accidently turn one mode on that uses data unbeknownst to us. Suddenly… BOOM … you are stuck with a sizable bill that you were trying to avoid by relying on the Wi-Fi at your hotel.

Yes, I am speaking from personal experience. I was in Spain and kept my phone on airplane mode the entire trip except for when I was in the hotel. While at the hotel, I was updating a social media post using Wi-Fi when I realized I was almost late for dinner. I ran out of the door, forgetting to switch the settings, and the next thing I saw was a text from AT&T stating that I had exceeding $100 of extra data.

Luckily, AT&T sees this all the time and happily allowed me to retroact my data plan for the month, lowering my extra charges to around $25 (thank you, AT&T). International data plans start around $20 – a small price to pay when you never know what sort of emergency may occur. Go ahead and spring for the extra data for the month of your travel and don’t stress about having to use one of your apps to find that awesome restaurant you read about online. I promise you will be happy that you did.

TAKE THIS TO THE BANK: 5 MONEY TIPS FOR TRAVEL

I spent ten years talking about taking my parents to Europe, six months planning the trip, and two days fighting canceled flights, all to arrive unable to take cash out of the ATM in order to pay our VRBO host. I knew it was sketchy that they required cash but I needed to oblige. I called the banks to let them know I was traveling and did everything that I thought would be enough to ensure monetary security during the trip. However, I failed to take matters into my own hands. As a child, I was taught to ask nicely if I wanted something but as a grown-up, I needed to independently fish for the things I wanted. Nowadays, banks have interactive online portals that allow you to submit your travel information yourself and receive an email confirmation that your travel plans have been logged.

Don’t be like me and believe that the nice lady over the phone is inputting your information correctly (although, I am sure she had the best intentions). Make sure to follow these steps to confirm that you have any and all financial resources that you may need during your trip:

  • Gather the equivalent of at least $100 (more if you want to feel extra secure) in the currency of your final location. Regardless of what taxis, tips, hunger pangs, etc. come up between your departure and arrival at your accommodations, this should have you covered. If you want to bring more and avoid the fees at the airport, feel free to do so. Be realistic though and don’t take out more than you will actually spend as you may end up losing part of the deal when converting the money back to your original currency at the end of your trip.
  • Have multiple forms of payment. You should have at least a debit card and a credit card. The more diverse your forms of payment, the more secure you will be if one card is canceled, lost or compromised.
  • Make sure that your card is internationally accepted. Most credit cards are, however, not all have a chip allowing easy reading by all machines. This was another lesson learned while trying to extract cash from the ATM in Corfu, Greece. My consequence consisted of walking a mile to find a bank that could read my chip-less credit card. I now have Chase Sapphire that not only provides reward travel points but also contains a convenient chip that has been read everywhere I’ve gone since. When in doubt, get the card with the chip and the strip.
  • Travelers’ checks are for the birds. This concept is considered antiquated and less suitable. Stick to traditional currency to guarantee that your money is accepted by the vendors.
  • Submit all travel plans online and make sure to do this for all of the cards, even for those that you may only use in the event of an emergency. It is suggested to do a follow-up phone call to verify that all plans are confirmed within the system. You can never be too cautious when it comes to money and travel. 

The last thing that you want to worry about on your trip is finding an ATM. You could chalk it up to sightseeing with a purpose….by why not avoid the stress, time crunch, and use your resources to enjoy the journey that you have just embarked upon!