It has been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, so let me once again opine on what I think every traveler needs:
Every traveler needs reusable small containers to hold toiletries and other tiny things. I say “what I think every traveler needs” because I truly believe that these are essential for all travelers.
Yes, I know that one can buy travel-sized toiletries and toss the containers when they are empty, but that’s a waste of money and resources. Travel sizes tend to be more expensive, so why pay more per ounce for your favorite shampoo? And the last thing this planet needs is more plastic waste (or any kind of waste).
There are loads of options for small toiletries containers and in a variety of materials:
You could buy the aforementioned travel-size toiletries, but reuse the bottles.
You could reuse other tiny containers. I have a few aluminum ones that originally contained lip balm that I’ve since washed and reused repeatedly. I have also been known to use one of my children’s plastic Easter eggs to hold small things.
You could buy travel bottles made of plastic, silicone, aluminum, and/or glass. Whatever material, size, and shape works for you.
It really doesn’t matter which of the options above you use; the most important thing is to go with what words for your needs and your budget.
For potentially messy toiletries, like shampoo and face oil, I make sure the lids are screwed on tight and then I drop those bottles into a shared sandwich bag and seal it. After that, I put them in the quart-size bag required by the TSA. I don’t like the waste of using a single-use plastic bag, but I really don’t like getting to my destination and realizing that my liquids have leaked all over each other, and I do try to clean and reuse the plastic bags for more than one trip.
No matter what, make sure you clean and dry your little containers thoroughly after each trip. Once I’ve done that, I store all of mine in a small bin so that they are together and I don’t have to hunt around for anything the next time I pack.
Related, a note about efficient packing: One common piece of advice is to keep your toiletries bag stocked and ready to go with your toothpaste, shampoo, makeup, etc. at all times. Unless you are traveling frequently — such as weekly or a couple of times a month — I counsel against this. Toiletries do have expiration dates and the last thing you want to do is reach your destination and realize that your facial oil has gone rancid or your mascara has dried up.
Instead, keep a detailed packing list at the ready and then actually consult it when it’s time to fill your travel containers. I admit that I find it a tiny bit annoying to have to fill everything, so I set myself up for success. I line up all of my clean little containers on the counter, have small plastic bags on hand, pull out my toiletries, and make sure I have everything on my list. Then I power through and fill everything in one go.
This advice isn’t exactly revolutionary or new, but it is important and a reminder that a little bit of preparation in advance helps everything go more smoothly later on.
Tell me about YOUR favorite travel containers? What do you use?
As everyone knows, earlier this week, a single federal judge blocked all mask mandates on public transportation in the U.S.
One person — a political appointee who was deemed not qualified by the American Bar Association — made a science-based decision on behalf of the entire population of this country.
The CDC should be making health decisions for the populace, not a person who is not a doctor and who apparently does not understand science, based on what she wrote in her ruling.
Yes, people can — and should — still opt to wear masks on flights and other public transportation, But the science is clear that one-way masking is less effective than when everyone wears a mask. The only reason I was willing to get on an airplane for our recent trip to Portugal was that I knew everyone would be masked.
This decision to remove mask mandates affects not only each person individually but everyone around us and beyond. Children under 5 are still not vaccinated and need us to wear masks. Millions of immunocompromised, disabled, and elderly people need us to wear masks. And the information coming out about how long COVID is affecting so many people, including many who were young, healthy, and fit before they got sick, is terrifying.
This is not just like the flu. And even if it were, people can and have died from the flu.
Masks save lives.
Is it fun to wear a mask? No, it’s not, and especially not for long flights. But it is necessary in order to save lives and hopefully one day slow down this damn virus.
I will continue to mask, most especially in crowded areas, including airports and airplanes. I hope you will too.
When we were in Porto earlier this year, we had a washer in our flat and of course, we used it. Unfortunately, all functions were labeled with symbols that made no sense to us, so it wasn’t like we could use Google Translate to figure things out.
That wasn’t the worst idea we’ve had but it sure wasn’t the best either.
It turns out that the washer was a washer/dryer combo and we accidentally dried a load of dirty laundry with laundry detergent. When the clothes came out hot and smelling strongly of a chemical hybrid of perfume and flowers*, we knew we had made a grievous error.
(* Since I have sensitive skin and am allergic to scented products, we tried throughout the trip to find unscented detergent. This proved to be a quixotic quest and ultimately we bought detergent for babies, which was slightly less scented.)
Pete went online and found the owner’s manual for the washer/dryer and painstakingly translated it bit by bit. He eventually figured out how to run the washer and we put the load in without any detergent and washed it. Unfortunately, the detergent scent was baked in, so we ended up washing the load a second time and just lived with the aura of perfume until it faded away.
For the rest of the trip, each time we moved to a new Airbnb, Pete downloaded and translated the owner’s manuals first and THEN we did laundry.
The four of us were able to go on a safari in South Africa in 2015 and there was one small moment that has stayed with me all these years.
One day we were at a wildlife rescue center and as our guide was walking with us, he stopped to feed a leopard who had come into the center’s care and could not be released back into the wild. The guide had a metal bowl in which he had placed some raw meat, and he pulled the individual chunks out by hand and tossed them through the fence to the waiting leopard.
Without pausing in his conversation with us, the guide walked to a nearby faucet and poured a small amount of water (maybe .25.-5. cup) into the bowl. He then set the bowl on a flat surface and carefully washed the blood off his hands without spilling a drop. Once his hands were rinsed off, he walked to a nearby tree and carefully poured the water over the roots.
Our guide didn’t comment on why he used only a tiny amount of water rather than just running his hands under the faucet, but given that South Africa was in the midst of a drought, it’s clear that he was trying to use as little water as possible.
I’ve thought about this moment many times over the years, easily at least once a month since then. I have lived in Virginia my whole life and have mostly experienced an abundance of annual precipitation. Only once can I recall a time when our annual rainfall was much lower and our area had to go into water conservation.
And I think about the billions of people around the world who live without enough water on a daily basis. Who don’t have washing machines or dishwashers or yard sprinklers or swimming pools. Who have to consider every drop of water as they go about their days.
Due to rapid climate changes, my local area has received less precipitation than usual in the past couple of years. Things here are not dire, not like, say, Utah and Arizona, where Lake Powell is drying up, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in the future.
I don’t have a tidy end to this post. I am sharing this small moment in order to have everyone stop and ponder their water usage. I am considering mine and how I can use less.
With most tourist destinations, there are always those spots that are on the You’ve Got To See This lists. So many have cultural or historical significance or are simply so beautiful that yes they must be seen.
Others, however, are just gimmicky.
With the latter, social media has done a lot to give those spots attention that they would not have otherwise gotten. I follow a number of travel accounts on Instagram and I have seen many, many, MANY photos of Instagram-famous spots, all heavily edited and filtered for the most dramatic effect. I have even noted some of those places on my personal Google map in case I stumble on them and wonder what in the heck I’m seeing.
I’ve written before about the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. It’s simply a small statue in an odd spot, yet many tourists love it. It’s not my jam at all, but I truly believe that everyone should travel in a way that best suits them and see whatever things strike their fancy. So if you want to see the Little Mermaid (or whatever the spot is), good for you. It’s your vacation, enjoy it.
With that in mind, let me tell you about one of Lisbon’s famous spots on social media, Pink Street. The official name is Rua Nova do Carvalho, but you can enter Pink Street into Google Maps and it will get you there. Pink Street is in the Cais do Sodre neighborhood and used to be Lisbon’s red-light district. Its location close to the waterfront of the Tagus River made it a popular spot for sailors returning to port. For centuries, the neighborhood was gritty and rundown. Definitely not a place that the average tourist visited.
Starting in 2011, city leaders made an effort to clean up and gentrify the neighborhood. The asphalt on two blocks of Rua Nova do Carvalho was painted pink. Brothels were closed down and bars were opened. Nowadays, the area is known for being a nightlife hotspot.
Here’s the truth: During the day, Pink Street is quiet and there’s nothing going on, except tourists taking photos. The area is truly underwhelming and the pink road itself is filthy and in need of repainting. At night, the area is mobbed with bar-hopping tourists.
One day last month, when Pete and I were exploring Lisbon on foot, we accidentally found Pink Street. We both knew about it and had even joked about going over specifically to take touristy photos (do it for the gram), but we weren’t interested enough to actually follow through.
And there we were.
We stopped and looked at each other said, “You know, we really have to do this.”
I woke up shivering and absolutely shaking from being cold. The last time I could remember being this cold was on a camping trip.
We had landed in Porto earlier in the day, after flying overnight from Dulles. I slept maybe an hour on the flight and Pete got a whopping zero minutes of sleep, so we were exhausted and not thinking clearly.
We took the metro into the city and were in our Airbnb by 10am. We walked to a nearby grocery store for supplies, ate lunch in our apartment, and then my husband crawled into bed for a nap. Meanwhile, I read on the sofa until I fell asleep.
Two hours later, I woke up shaking so much my teeth actually chattered. I got up and put on another sweater, then made coffee. A layer of wool and coffee helped, but I was still shivering.
Pete woke up, poured himself a mug of coffee, and commented on how cold he was. Pete is *never* cold, y’all. He’s one of those guys who wears shorts* year-round.
(*Cargo shorts, of course.)
Exhaustion was impairing our thinking, but we eventually figured it out: A lot of Portuguese homes do not have central heat, but instead use different smaller systems that are not left on constantly in the winter.
What this tiny apartment did have was a wall heater in the living room and it was not turned on. Pete turned it on. Within 15 minutes we both were much more comfortable.
We stayed in two other places during our trip last month. In Nazaré we rented a wee three-room Airbnb that had a space heater in the ground floor kitchen and another one in the second-floor living room, both of which did a really good job of heating those two rooms, plus the bedroom on the top floor. And in Lisbon we were in a small two-story apartment that had a combined living room and kitchen on the lower level and a bedroom and bathroom upstairs. The Lisbon place had radiators in three spots.
In all the places we stayed in Portugal, the hosts asked us to turn the heat on when we needed it and to always turn it off when we left for the day. Utilities are expensive in Portugal, so heaters, fans, and air conditioners are only used as needed and not left running all the time.
So when we left for our day’s adventures, we would turn off the heat — and in the Lisbon place, this meant also turning off the water heater, as the two systems were connected — and when we returned late in the afternoon we’d turn things back on again. After the shivers from our first day, we remained warm and cozy the rest of our time in Portugal.
We’ve encountered this in other places too, including New Zealand, which surprised us, given how cold it gets on the South Island in the winter. But it works and I’m not going to criticize the system when as an American I know that my utility use is much higher than much of the rest of the world.
I will say that the next time we’re in Portugal during colder months, I am absolutely going to set a reminder on my phone to remember to turn on the dang heat when we arrive.
The tram driver was shouting at the van driver. The van driver was yelling back.
I don’t speak Portuguese, but based on body language and tone of voice, I was certain a lot of swear words and insults were being hurled back and forth. The air was thick with tension and we passengers had no idea what was going on.
Lisbon is famous for its classic Remodelado trams, and the city has used trams for public transportation since the 1870s. While the trams are tourist attractions, they’re also still vital components of the city’s public transportation network, as they cover areas where the metro and modern Articulado trams cannot go.
Lisbon’s trams are convenient and efficient. And if you load up a metro card and use it to pay when you board a tram, the fare is only €1.50, regardless of the length of your trip, as opposed to €3 if you pay with cash.
(Side note: You can only pay for fares with a metro card or with cash, no credit cards.)
Tourists flock to Tram 28, which carves a route through the oldest part of the city and passes by numerous attractions. The 28 has two endpoints: Martim Moniz to the east and Campo de Ourique/Prazeres Cemetery to the west.
(Another side note: the 28 line is famous for pickpockets, so much so that there are signs warning people about them. Just be careful and alert and you should be fine.)
Something else that’s important to know is that it’s not uncommon for Portuguese drivers to park wherever they damn well please, even if it’s on a sidewalk or double-parked in the street, which makes things tricky on narrow medieval streets.
Our Airbnb was in Campo de Ourique and, on the day I’m about to describe, we had decided to ride the entire tram line end to end.
When we first boarded the #28, the driver was tersely explaining to a tourist that only cash was accepted, not credit cards. The tourist pulled out a large bill to pay the fare and the tram operator made change quickly while sighing impatiently.
And then we were off. The tram moved east, stopping every few blocks to let people off and on. Unlike during the summer months, the inside wasn’t fully packed with people, which was a nice change.
Every now and then the tram would slow down while the driver carefully eased by a parked car close to the tracks. Or, he would have to stop entirely due to a double-parked vehicle. Every time, he would shake his head in irritation or, if the delay was lengthy by his standards, he’d clang the tram’s bell to let the offending car driver know that they were holding things up.
Then we hit the Baixa neighborhood, which is the heart of Lisbon’s tourist area. At this point, the tram had to frequently slow down or stop because of people walking across the road or actually standing in the road taking pictures. As you might imagine, this did not please our driver, who would shake his head and mutter loudly.
After crossing Baixa, the tram headed up the hill into the Alfama neighborhood, which is the oldest part of the city. Because Alfama is both old and also spread out over one of Lisbon’s huge hills, the roads are narrow and twisty.
As we climbed, the tram had to stop because of a construction vehicle blocking the road. With no sense of urgency or awareness of our driver’s increasing irritation, the construction crew helped direct their vehicle back into a parking spot. The driver of the vehicle moved slowly and carefully, as befitted maneuvering in a cramped medieval street.
Our tram driver had had enough. He got off the tram and had words with the construction crew, who seemed amused by the anger displayed in front of them. Then our guy boarded the tram — once again shaking his head and muttering loudly — and the #28 once again moved forward.
The tram stopped at the Lisbon Cathedral, which is one of the most popular spots on the line, and all but about 10 passengers disembarked. #28 continued on.
Several blocks later, one of the tourists on the tram leaned out the window to take a photo — there are signs on board specifically warning against doing this very stupid thing — and of course she dropped her phone. Her companions started yelling for the tram driver to stop, which he did with obvious reluctance. The driver opened the rear door for the woman to go collect her phone off the pavement.
And then, so help me, our guy closed the rear door and I truly thought he was going to leave the woman behind. But he was only sticking to protocol, which is that passengers board at the front and get off at the rear. Yes, he seriously made the woman get back on via the front door. Honestly, I can’t believe he didn’t charge her a second fare.
Once again, we started up and we made it an entire two blocks without any mishaps until we turned onto a really narrow street and came to an abrupt stop. Coming at us from the opposite direction was not only a panel van, but behind it was another tram. The road was so narrow that there was nowhere for the van to go but forward.
Our driver, now close to his breaking point, got off and started yelling at the van driver. The van driver yelled back. Back and forth they yelled. The second tram driver joined them and appeared to try to mediate the dispute.
Then our guy stormed back to the tram, grabbed a long metal tool — imagine a 2-foot long wrench — and stomped to the back of the tram. He threw the tool down to the floor with a great deal of disgust and anger, and the tool landed with a loud clang and bounced once.
Our driver started slamming levers and moving tram parts around in order to back up the tram. And yes, of course, he was huffing and puffing and griping in Portuguese.
(Note to self: Learn Portuguese curse words before our next trip.)
The tram backed up slowly for about a block, then stopped. The other tram driver had followed us on foot. Our driver got off again and the two men conferred with each other, colleague to colleague.
Our guy got back on the back of the tram and slowly backed us farther down the road, while the second driver continued to walk alongside. At the point where there was a curve in the road and a second set of tracks, our driver stopped and the second tram driver physically switched the tracks and guided the tram pole from one overhead power line to another, using a rope attached for that purpose. Then we backed up a bit more.
At this point, the driver of the panel van hauled ass down the road and passed us, never once making eye contact with our driver.
The second driver went back to his tram and drove it down the hill, passed us, and stopped just beyond. Then he hopped out once more to help our driver come back around the corner, move the tram pole from one power line to another, and change the tracks. The two colleagues exchanged a few quiet words, then each moved back to his respective tram and continued on.
After that, we all sat in silence, not wanting to do or say anything that might enrage our driver. We made it to the end of the line and got off.
As we walked away, we made eye contact with another couple who had been on the wild ride and one of them said, “Well, that was something.”
My primary concern about this trip was flying. Before we left, I researched what experts had to say about the safety of flying, as well as spoke with some friends who are medical professionals. Based on what I learned, Pete and I wore N95 masks on the plane and felt safe. We removed our masks briefly to drink and eat.
Once we landed in Porto, I could feel two years of anxiety start to melt away. Portugal has done an excellent job managing this pandemic. As of this writing, the country has a vaccination rate of 91.5%, which puts it in the top 3 globally. Pretty much anyone who can be vaccinated is.
Just as important, masks are very much a part of everyday life for the Portuguese. Everyone wears surgical (or better) masks. Masks are required in all inside places and on all public transportation. Many people wear masks outside too.
And masks are worn CORRECTLY — covering the nose, with no nostrils peeking out. If I saw someone’s nostrils, the changes were very good that that person was a tourist.
Y’all, I felt so incredibly safe. We had a wonderful time. And we consistently tested negative from our pre-trip tests until our final pre-flight tests last week. We’ve been home almost 72 hours and still feel fine, but we’ll continue to isolate this week, just in case.
I have several stories to share from this trip, so be on the lookout for those.
I make my packing lists in spreadsheets, with different categories of items on different sheets within the document. I actually save most of my packing lists and will use an old one as the basis for creating a new one. That way, I don’t forget something important. And, at the end of a trip, I’ll add notes to my list about what did and did not work well.
While I might start out with a general list — 3 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, etc. — I always end up with a very specific, detailed list of every single item I plan to pack, down to the last pair of socks. I dislike being unprepared for what I might need, but I also dislike having things that wasted valuable space in my bag.
My very best, most minimalist, packing list was our trip to Portugal in 2019. I had two outfits — one in my bag and one on my body — and absolutely no excess whatsoever. It was great.
Back when WOW Air (out of Iceland) was still in business, they had strict carry-on bag weight limits. The first time we flew WOW, the carry-on limit was a strict 5 kilograms, which was about 11 pounds, and they weighed bags. Our packing lists were tight, TIGHT, I tell you. I had to tell one teenager to leave her heavy books at home and download them to her phone. I’m not going to lie, everyone in my house was able to pack that light, but we also had a few things stuffed in our coat pockets. The airline loosened weight limits a bit after that, but by that point, our lightweight habit was formed.
On the other end of the spectrum, the first time Pete and I traveled abroad together was in 1996. We were spending two weeks in England and Scotland, then ending with a long weekend in Estonia for a wedding. Between the two of us we had two large overstuffed duffel bags, a smaller duffel bag, a garment bag, and I think a school backpack. We were definitely carrying a couple of paperback travel guides and plenty of other items that we would never pack now. It was absolutely ridiculous and we were miserable every time we moved from location to location, which was a lot.
Getting back to my packing lists, I also keep a list of pre-travel tasks that need to be done — putting a hold on the mail, paying the bills, checking in for our flights, printing boarding passes, etc. I usually also add these to my Google calendar as pop-up reminders in the days before we leave.
I think about my packing lists from 25 years ago — written out on a piece of notebook paper. And 15 years ago — a basic list typed up in a Word document, then printed out and amended as I go. And now — a spreadsheet that I can access on my phone. This way is so much better.
What kind of packer are you? And what is your packing list like?
Friends, can we talk candidly and without judgment about the pandemic and Omicron?
How many of you are still doing All The Safe Things? Masking, double-masking, N95 masking. Avoiding restaurants, avoiding indoor sporting events, avoiding stores, avoiding people.
My household has been and continues to do so. None of us has eaten inside a restaurant in almost two years. None of us has been on an airplane. Or in a movie theater. We never stopped, not once, wearing masks in stores or other places.
And I’m weary. Are you weary too?
We’re vaxxed, boosted, and have a good stash of N95 masks. We even have face shields. (To be honest, everyone else in my house thinks that the face shields are a Pandemic Step Too Far.)
I really want to get on an airplane and go somewhere. We’ve canceled two trips already. We currently have plane tickets to Portugal, which has the highest vaccination rate in the world.
We keep having risk analysis conversations. Could we do it? Could we get on an airplane — with face masks and rapid tests in our bags — and zoom off to the Iberian peninsula?
We accept that we could very well, in spite of our precautions, get sick along the way. We accept that could happen and are prepared for it.
Are we being selfish or irresponsible? These are the questions I ask myself constantly.
What about you? Have you traveled? Are you planning travel? Does your household go through the same risk analysis when thinking about travel?
I debated whether or not to write this, because I put my hopes for 2021 out into the universe a year ago and they absolutely did not happen. And of course now the omicron variant is rampaging around the world and cases are spiking.
But a person can dream, right? So I’m going to imagine my ideal plans for the coming year, just for fun:
Hypothetically speaking, it would be lovely to go back to Portugal this winter. We had planned a trip for last fall and then had to postpone.
Hypothetically speaking, it would be lovely to take our daughters on a nice trip in late spring or early summer to celebrate the younger one’s college graduation and belatedly celebrate the older one’s graduation last year.
Hypothetically speaking, I would love to meet up with my oldest friends — we live in four different states across multiple time zones — for a long weekend somewhere. We traveled together in 2019, planned our next joint adventure for 2021 (canceled, of course), and would love to see each other in real life and not just via Zoom.
Hypothetically speaking, I would love to go to Japan in the fall. Ten months ago my husband and I jumped on cheap airfares, thinking that the world would surely be a safer place this winter. Little did we know. Japan is currently closed to tourists, so that trip has been postponed.
Hypothetically speaking, a relative is getting married outside at a vineyard in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall and I would love to attend that safely with my extended family.
Beyond that, I’m not setting any goals.
What about you? Do you have any trips planned for the coming year?
I was scrolling through Pinterest recently and came upon an article about the “ultimate” three day sightseeing itinerary for London. Here’s what it covered exactly as listed:
Tower of London
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Palace of Westminster
Changing of the Guard
The National Gallery
St. Dunstan’s in the East
Victoria and Albert Museum
Notting Hill neighborhood
My jaw actually dropped when I read this list because it’s … a lot.
And each day’s itinerary has you racing all over the place. (The article actually suggests hopping on and off buses, which will help, but still.)
What is unclear to me is if the author was suggesting that you follow this itinerary and see everything in the sense of walking by and checking it off your list or if they were suggesting that one could actually deeply explore all these places in a whirlwind tour of a large city filled with amazing choices. The first possbility is feasible, the second is lunacy.
Look, I get it. The first time one visits a city, there’s excitement and enthusiasm. You want to see everything, particularly if this is a dream destination and you don’t know if you’ll ever visit again. But, if you’re spending only three days in a major city, you can’t see everything. You just can’t.
And there comes a point when one becomes just saturated, so to speak, and can’t soak up any more new things without a break. It’s just like visiting museums.
I’m thinking back to my first visit to London in the mid-90s. It was the tail end of two weeks in the UK and I think we had about four days. We knew we couldn’t see everything on our wishlist, so we prioritized and hoped that we would be able to visit again before too long.
(Narrator: It took 10 years.)
I’m not going to tell anyone about how they should travel, because that’s a deeply personal choice. I do prefer taking things at a slower pace than I used to and I’ve always preferred exploring by foot.
I’ve tried repeatedly to put together my own personal three day itinerary in London for a first-time visitor and it’s hard to pare things down. My favorite things to do might not be your favorite things.
I would recommend the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. I personally love the walk from Tower Bridge along the south bank of the Thames to the London Eye, with a detour across Millennium Bridge and back.
I also love walking through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, as well as picking up picnic supplies at the Harrods Food Halls.
I also love the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert.
And a few years ago I finally fulfilled my dream of seeing the inside of Buckingham Palace.
And of course I like wandering through different neighborhoods and exploring at two miles per hour.
These are all wonderful things, but like I said, they’re not everyone’s idea of a good time.
What about you? What would you do if you had three days in London?