A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Air Travel Survival

This guide is intended to optimize your enjoyment of air travel, if it makes life a bit more efficient in the process too, that’s great, but don’t get upset at me if it doesn’t okay. As travel advisers, we are well traveled and know a few things about travel, however, I am including some tips from some other well known and well traveled folks so you can learn from their knowledge as well. 

Preparing to Prepare for Air Travel

You will never be fully prepared. This is not my opinion, or even an opinion, it is a simple fact of life. No matter what you are doing, or more accurately what you are trying to do, you will screw something up along the way. It could be minor, like forgetting a toothbrush, or major, like forgetting all of your luggage. In step one, you come to terms with your natural human imperfections so you can move into step two with some of your sanity and dignity in tact. 

Buying Tickets

First of all, use a travel agent. I admit bias, because we are travel agents, but seriously, it’s free, we get paid by the vendor, not you. Having us do all of the hard work will make you feel like an eccentric billionaire, I promise. Just ring us on the phone and say, “I think I’d like to go to Fiji,” and we’re on it. The purpose of this article is to help you enjoy the flight and getting tickets to fly is important to that end, because while you may be limited to certain airlines and flights depending on your destination, you can usually control where you sit, which is important. I won’t tell you whether window, middle or aisle seats are the best, that is up to you. I will however advise you to look at the seat diagram carefully. The seats that back up against a bulkhead do not recline and are usually in front of the bathroom. The emergency exit row seats look tempting. Exit row seats have all of that leg room and may well be cheaper. First note that prior to takeoff, folks sitting in the emergency exit rows will be deputized as emergency exit operators and you will be responsible for at least half of the lives on that plane, this will result in fewer alcoholic beverages. Also note that in most cases the exit row seats are near the bathrooms and all of that extra leg room will be taken up by folks doing their airplane yoga routine while they wait for the toilet. You are in their park and not everyone that stretches out in flight is pleasing to the senses. And far too many of them are far too nosy. Go with business class, especially if there are perks like free drinks. If free drinks are involved you cannot possibly go wrong. First class is very nice, but on most domestic flights, it is not worth the cost as the seats are only marginally better and the free drinks can be obtained in business or comfort class in certain circumstances. For long international flights, first class or business is the only way to go. Save your points for first class or business class international, the seats often recline all the way back and you are pampered the whole time.

Pro Tip: Try to book flights that arrive at your destination in the morning. Arriving at a tropical resort at 10:36 PM local time is like paying for an entire day, but only getting less than an hour and a half, plus restaurants and room service close or reduce their menu options late at night in some locations so you may end up eating $15 worth of trail mix from the tray in the room for dinner. If you are flying to Las Vegas however, it doesn’t really matter, because time does not exist in Vegas, it defies all known laws of physics but the trail mix is still absurdly overpriced.

Hunter S. Thompson

Preparing for Air Travel

These steps will set you up for success or failure. Success means having an enjoyable flight that lands safely at the expected destination. Failure means you’ve landed safely at your destination without having enjoyed the process of getting there, or worse having a very bad time getting there. Now that you know you are imperfect and you will screw up something, don’t make a checklist, that will bore you to death and you probably won’t use it anyway. Do you really need a reminder to pack clothes? Get your important things, passports, sunglasses, and wallet etc… and put them next to your airplane clothes. Oops. I forgot to mention your airplane clothes. Get long, comfy pants, a tee shirt that is a bit loose, comfortable walking shoes and a hat and leave it out the night before headed for the airport. Comfort is important on an airplane. You do not need to look like some kind of Jetset champagne sipping airline advertisement model to fly in an airplane, you just need to look like you have enough credit to buy a $670 ticket to Hawaii. You may be tempted to wear flip flops to the airport, especially if you are headed somewhere tropical, but remember, airports are big and you will probably spend most of your day walking from terminal to terminal. Yes, TSA will make you take your shoes off and flip flops are easy on easy off for this purpose, but if you have TSA pre-check, you can board without taking off your shoes. What I’m saying here is that you should get TSA pre-check, you get to cut the line and keep your shoes on. It’s worth it.

Pro Tip: Being comfortable is not the same thing as being a slob. You are not about to binge thirty hours of mediocre Netflix originals with a tub of Cheetos and a 30 pack of Miller High Life. At least pretend like you are a civilized human being for a few hours and wear proper adult outdoor clothing. If you don’t know how to do this, then at least keep your shoes on for the whole flight for crying out loud.

The kid who ate glue in the third grade. Yes, somehow, he is now well traveled.

Packing

Get packing cubes and shirt folding packers. Put different items of clothing in different cubes. Pack enough clothes to last, and remember that you will want to change when you arrive and you will need something to wear on the flight home. They won’t let you fly naked no matter how drunk you get. Regarding the flight home, while saving room for stuff you buy on vacation sounds like a good idea, it far too often means sacrificing things you wish you could have brought for a couple of shirts and a thing of hot sauce. Usually these purchases can be placed in your carry-on, but be careful, that humungous novelty sombrero has but one possible storage option on an airplane and everyone around you will regret your last minute airport gift shop purchase. Yeah, sure, you might be able to get it into the overhead compartment, but then the pilot will decide to bang a hard right so only one side of the plane can see the Grand Canyon and other items of luggage will shift and forever deform your 350 peso sombrero. Get a dop bag and fill it with all of the toiletries you normally need, don’t empty out your bathroom cabinets, instead go out and buy the stuff you need and just keep it in the dop bag for future travel use only. You do not need to buy the miniature travel stuff if you are checking your bag, which you should do anyway, so just buy normal sized things. You are going on a trip, not making a miniature model of your bathroom. If you have a toothbrush that sits in a dop bag that is stored in your luggage, then you have already packed a toothbrush and will never worry about forgetting it. If you ignored my advice and you forget your toothbrush, keep in mind that they sell toothbrushes almost everywhere on the planet, and if you are headed somewhere they don’t sell toothbrushes, then you probably can get away with not brushing for a bit, just don’t tell your dentist. Unless you are fashion conscious, shorts and bathing suits can be reused over several days, so don’t waste space and weight packing every pair you have. Weigh your luggage with a luggage scale and remove or shift items to other bags until you are under the max weight. It is never fun paying extra for a pair of jeans you could have just left home, or worse, having to rearrange your entire luggage scheme in front of everyone in line at the ticket counter. It will ruin the whole flight, I guarantee it.

Pro Tip: Your main carry-on should be a backpack. I know you like your roller bag and a heavy backpack seems like a burden, but those suitcase like carry-ons get extra scrutiny at the gate and a ticket agent’s threshold for size forgiveness is relative and therefore varies widely. You could end up having to check your carry-on, which involves frantically pulling out the things you need on the plane in front of everyone boarding the plane.

Alber Einstein

Getting to the Airport

Plan on arriving two hours early and then get there three hours early. Rushing around is no fun. Having a few hours to kill at a bar near the gate after getting through TSA is like starting vacation early. It really doesn’t matter how you get to the airport as long as you enjoy it, but make sure your mode of transportation to the airport is reliable, effective and fast enough to get you there for pre-flight happy hour. 

Arriving at the Airport

Get out, take all of your bags and get in. Nobody is your friend, these bastards will cut you just to get their bags on the conveyor belt one minute ahead of you. Have your passport, license and credit cards ready, so you can put them down on the counter like a poker dealer laying a flop. If you have to spend even one second dislodging your driver’s license from your over-stuffed wallet, you have failed already. You might as well turn around and go home because vacation is ruined. Print your boarding pass. Nobody wants to wait while you figure out how to get your phone screen bright enough to satisfy the stupid ticket scanner, nor do we want to watch you flip your phone around until the QR code is properly oriented.

Getting through TSA

First of all, get TSA Pre-Check, it will save you time better spent at the bar. When you get to the line, have your documents ready, make sure your jewelry and other things that will make the machine go beep are put away in your carry on and be ready to pull out all the things they want you to pull out, like laptops and stuff. Taking off your shoes will take longer if you are not wearing flip flops, but your feet will be far more comfortable after miles of airport walking. If you are going to make jokes about bombs, or Crocodile Dundee knives while in TSA, do it quietly, unless of course a full body cavity search is your bag baby. The big machine that swivels around to scan you will pick up a tissue in your pocket. I know, it happened to me several times already. Please note, there are restrictions on liquids. As far as the TSA is concerned, an avocado is fine as long as you haven’t turned it into guacamole, because at that point, it shows up as liquified explosives in the x-ray machine and you will end up in GITMO. Smile at the TSA people, if you treat them well, they will treat you well, but don’t smile too much, you don’t want to give them the impression you are about to be in the company of a few dozen virgins. 

Finding your Gate

If all has gone to plan, you will have arrived at the airport well before your airplane and you will have an hour or so of free time to spend, don’t blow it by going to the wrong gate and then having to rush to the right gate at the last minute. Take a moment to find the gate. When you find the gate, take note of the bars and restaurants nearby. Pick the bar or restaurant nearest you and get inside. Now, you could put your name in for a seat, but sitting at a table or booth is boring. Head for the bar first. The bar is where all the interesting people are and it is also where drinks are served almost immediately upon request. I do not mean to disparage the wait staff, but the bartender has the drinks delivery down to perfection and nobody wants to wait while the lady at table five tries to explain what she does and does not want in her damn salad. 

Pro Tip: Seating at some bars may be limited during busy hours, yes, even at 6:00 AM, so if there are more than one of you, divide and conquer. One of you searches from one end, the other searches from the other. Tell-tale signs to look for are a finished meal and drink, though the latter could just mean another is on the way. A credit card on the bar is almost as good as a signed check and one hand on the luggage handle. Have a signal system in place to discretely let your partner know you’ve found a seat without letting the other jackals in the bar know. I like a simple come hither wave, but you can make up your own if you like. Also, if there are two seats but they are not next to each other, consider proposing a seat restructuring scheme involving people moving down one and or bringing one stool next to another.

Sun Tzu

Drinking at the Bar

Yes, I know you already have this one down, but bear with me for a second, because there are some important things to consider here. Time of day is important. Most of us do not get up at 6:00 AM to start drinking. I’m not judging you if you do get up early for the express purposes of drinking, but its not common, I’m just sayin. Get something that goes well with the time of day. Mimosas and bloody marys are great morning drinks, as is anything involving coffee, but don’t overdo it with the coffee, at some point you will want to sleep on the plane and coffee won’t help at all. If you are like me, you will not want to mix different types of alcohol over the course of your journey. For example, if you are going to Mexico, count on having tequila at some point later in the day, whereas if you are going to Hawaii, you will hopefully be offered a complimentary Mai Tai, which usually involves rum. Get what you intend to drink for the remainder of the day and keep destination related drinks in mind. Don’t drink beer. I don’t care how much you like beer, you can’t have it until you land and you have checked into your room. If you do not understand why you should not drink beer, be patient, the reason will hit you soon. Before you get loaded, make sure you have a way to figure out the status and boarding time of your plane. If the gate changes, you will want to know this information. Use an app, go out to check the board, whatever, just get to know the methods at your disposal. Eat something. Do not order something with the intent of taking it on the plane, especially a pizza. Order the food, eat it while it is hot and enjoy it, because the only meal on the plane will likely be approximately four miniaturized pretzels. Make friends. Tell cheesy airport jokes. Some of these people are miserable, their flights have been delayed, their Uber driver was a moron, and TSA touched them in ways that made them blush. Don’t be afraid to have a few more drinks before boarding, after all, you are not flying the plane. You can use that joke if you want, its a good conversation starter. Keep in mind that if you get too drunk the crew will notice and you will have a hard time getting more drinks on the plane. And you will want to get more drinks on the plane.

Pro Tip: Cheesy airport jokes are for the other guests, not the bartender. The bartender has heard more airport jokes than every comedian has written since the invention of air travel. Unless you are Jerry Seinfeld and you’ve spent the last three decades in seclusion writing cutting edge airplane humor the whole time, keep the jokes between you and the other guests only.

Literally every airport bartender alive today.

Boarding

First things first, you just left the bar, so you should go pee now, that way, if that liter of water and those three bar drinks hit your bladder a second time before boarding, you will be able to relax until the captain gives the all clear for bathroom use. Although the protocols might vary a bit by airline, just know that you already have a ticket and you will be boarding that plane one way or another. Prior to boarding time, find a comfy seat and relax. Let the alcohol take effect. Standing in the line that has formed before the doors have even opened will ruin your sweet buzz and make your feet hurt. If you can’t find a seat at your gate, wait at the next gate over, its not illegal. Have your boarding pass handy when your section gets called. You already know why you need this handy, do you really want to push that angry looking guy with the weird beard and ambiguous tattoos to his breaking point? You’ll start an international incident. Just be prepared. When you are aboard the plane, double check your seat assignment so you don’t have to backtrack through an angry crowd and accidentally bump tattoo guy somewhere unpleasant. Put your stuff away and sit down as fast as possible, because right now, there is someone who just got into the plane watching you and wondering just how stupid you are. Do you really want to carry the stupid label for the entire flight?

Pro Tip: Contrary to modern humor, the seatbelt is NOT useless. Yes, yes, I get it, if you crash into the mountain, that bit of fabric and metal on your lap will not do much to stop you from finding the outside of the plane via the reinforced cockpit door, but if the plane drops 10,000 feet in three seconds, it will keep you from bonking your head on the ceiling causing you to be paralyzed from the neck down. Just put it on. I still have no idea why the seat back needs to be fully upright though, so it‘s still fine to crack cheesy jokes about that.

Unknown random FAA employee.

Flying with Gadgets

Although perfume is not a gadget, I would like to make a few points if I may regarding the use of perfume. Don’t wear cologne or perfume. I don’t care how much you smell, rest assured that your perfume is only making the situation worse. Perfume smell travels at 917 miles per second man. It’s a fact, you can look it up online. You do not need all of your gadgets out at once. A phone and a book are fine. An iPad and a phone are fine. Why do you need all three? If you have an iPad, why do you need to have your laptop out? You are on vacation. Even if you are traveling for work, you had all sorts of time leading up to the flight to finish your work. Now is not the time and nobody is impressed with your work ethic. If you are watching movies on your laptop, remember that your iPad does the same thing, but takes up less space. Frankly, if you are going to use a laptop here is something that will make it worth all the effort of pulling it out, taking up too much space with it on your tray and irritating your seat mates with your bulky machine. Have some James Bond like portfolios open on your screen. You can make these things with simple off the shelf applications like MS Word and Powerpoint, all you need are grainy photos of angry looking bald men taken from across the street from the passenger seat of a Lincoln. Zoom in on the pretty girl behind the bald man in the picture and crop in on her. In the space below her image type the following: “Possible identity: Miranda Melitsos, AKA the Black Widow.” Keep doing this sort of stuff the whole flight and you will likely get a free martini out of it, but it will obviously have to be shaken, not stirred if you want to maintain your cover. If you don’t have time to follow mean looking bald guys around in a rented Lincoln, you could always download pictures of complex engineering schematics. Nobody knows what you are even looking at, it could be a suitcase nuke, it could be a new silent drive turbine for a Russian submarine. My final note, if you are in the center or aisle seat, the more gadgets and wires you have out, the more you will have to rearrange every time someone has to pee. 

Pro Tip: Look, I get it, the whole airplane mode thing is absurd and your phone probably doesn’t affect a single instrument in a meaningful way, but airplane mode does preserve battery life. Also, the plane is flying at 500 feet and going 40,000 miles per hour so what chances do you think you have at finding a cell signal? Honestly, nobody will miss your witty social media posts for the five hours you are in flight. Use your phone for music and games.

Aristotle

Drinking on the Plane

I skipped eating on the plane, because you were smart enough to eat a proper meal prior to boarding and the “snack” doesn’t count as eating anymore than golfing counts as exercise. The drinks cart comes around at least once, maybe twice if it’s a longer flight. Do not waste the opportunity when it comes. When the cart comes, you will already know what you are getting, because it involves the same alcohol you had at the airport bar. It will be more expensive, but what are you going to do about it anyway. Whatever you get, get doubles. Doubles means two miniature bottles of alcohol instead of just the usual one. A double drink may only last as long as a single, but it will work twice as hard. If your drink involves a mixer that comes in its own small can, see if you can get the whole can. Don’t be afraid to get too much ice, it melts and you will wish you had more later on. Whenever you interact with the crew, especially the ones pushing the drinks cart, be polite and act like you are a civilized human being who would be the person offering praise on national news for how well the flight crew performed in resolving some kind of incident and don’t be the person who looks like the incident waiting to happen, that is angry tattoo guy’s role. If the drinks cart comes around again, feel free to order more doubles. If the drinks cart does not come around, wait for a lull in bathroom activity and go to the service area and politely ask for more drinks using please and thank you. They can say no if they think you are too intoxicated or if they think you will become a problem, so it’s best not to give them any reason to think that way. Finally, do not drink beer. Beer is inefficient. You have to drink a considerable volume of beer to feel the effects and drinking a half dozen beers will nuke your bladder. If you keep drinking beer on a long flight, your routine will be as follows: finish beer, get up to pee, after peeing, ask for more beer. Not one person involved in this repetitive ordeal will be happy and you will be gassy.

Pro Tip: When the drinks are out you should consider consolidating the number of gadgets on the tray. If you are listening to music on your phone, put the phone in your pocket where it was designed to live anyway. Spilling $40 worth of drinks on a $1,200 MacBook Air is like destroying a Ferrari with a signed Babe Ruth baseball bat.

The Beatles

Putting the Seat Back

Reclining is controversial. I am adamantly pro-recline. If the seat behind you is a bulkhead seat and that guy cannot recline, that is his fault. The seats recline, you paid for it, you might as well enjoy all two point five inches of reclining. Enough said.

Pro Tip: If you decide to recline and you are near, or worse, in front of an anti-recline person, be prepared to have a conversation about how you are being ‘passive aggressive.’ Check for tattoo guy’s proximity to this conversation first and then politely inform them that your only intent here is to be passive and reclining is helpful to that end. Close your eyes and enjoy the flight.

Mahatma Gandhi

Talking to Others

Some people are talkers and some are not, you have to pay attention to the signals and adapt accordingly. I don’t mind small talk. Where are you from, what do you do for a living and other such questions are fine, but I do not want to be your best friend. I want to relax. If I do not engage you in conversation, do not be offended, and do not attempt to engage me in conversation. I will entertain small talk and then put my headphones on, that is the signal okay.

Pro Tip: Cheesy jokes have a way of discouraging the chatty types, but be sure it is really cheesy and not quasi clever. Here is a freebie: “Hey, when the peanuts come around, wanna split a bag with me?” The joke isn’t funny, I know, thats the point. Also, this joke implies a level of physical intimacy with a total stranger that for most humans is off-putting. Problem solved.

Dom DeLuise

Dealing with Delays and Stuff

If the pilot announces a delay, the first thing you need to do is start charging your gadgets, especially your phone. If you have a portable charger, now is the time to break it out. If the seat has a plug or USB port, use that instead, its free energy. Well, I mean you paid something for it, but you don’t need to pay extra for it. Getting upset is not going to help. It’s not as if the pilot arbitrarily decided to take a detour to check in on his summer home. The issue is too complex, it involves weather, traffic, events well beyond the control of any one person. For all we know the pilot ate the fish and the crew is simply buying time to find someone who can safely land a 737 and did not have fish for dinner. The closer you get to landing, the more involved you will likely need to get in figuring out whether or not you need to change a connecting flight or modify a hotel reservation, if you were smart, you used a travel agent who can do all of this for you while you enjoy a complimentary Snickers bar given in recognition of your amazing patience. But no matter what, know that it is beyond your control and see if you can’t use the inconvenience to get a free drink to accompany your candy bar, but do not expect a free flight to Hawaii because your plane landed twenty two minutes late.

Pro Tip: Landing is not the end, it is merely the beginning of the end. The plane needs to taxi, which takes forever because it rolls along at about 7 MPH and needs to get to Gate 475W, which is in its own special time zone. When it gets to the gate, someone needs to maneuver the gangway to the side of the plane. If you watched the moon landing, you know this is a difficult task that requires years of NASA training and billions of dollars in specially designed training equipment. When the all clear is signaled and the door opens, bet on at least thirty percent of the people in front of you not being prepared to leave the plane for some reason. I know they had the better part of an hour to put away their laptop and figure out what to do with a half bag of miniature pretzels, but they squandered that hour trying to spot DisneyLand while still over Colorado.

Neil Armstrong

Landing

When the plane lands, you can turn on your phone, but that does not necessarily mean you have to make calls on it right away. Put it in silent mode. Nobody likes your cool ringtones. Nobody will be impressed by your urgent business calls either, that is what email is for. 

Pro Tip: See above.

Guy in 36C.

Disembarking

Look, I know its frustrating. All of the crap that came onto the plane now needs to be removed from it. Be prepared. No need to stand up and hunch under the baggage compartment as the lady in 3B tries to dislodge her oversized “carry-on” from the overhead bin. Stay seated, its more comfortable. Once out of the plane, look for the signs and start heading in the direction of either baggage claim or your connecting gate. When you see a bathroom, use it. You may not have another chance to go until you get to your final destination. 

Pro-Tip: Take your seat belt off as soon as possible, this way, you will not attempt to stand up while wearing it, this is a novice mistake, but it can happen to the best of us.

The Buddha

Baggage Claim

This is the thunderdome of air travel. Nobody here cares about your situation. You could be rushing to deactivate a suitcase nuke coming down the conveyor belt, it doesn’t matter to anyone Jack Bauer, step aside because this is thunderdome. Get to baggage claim as fast as possible, keep in mind you already wasted two or three minutes in the bathroom so you can deal with baggage claim without the distractions of a full bladder. Once there, go straight for the beginning of the belt. Don’t loaf around behind the crowd like some kind of sheep, stand as close to the conveyor belt as possible without getting mortally injured by the fast moving mechanisms. Learn to recognize your luggage. When you see it, track it like a lion tracking prey. When you are within arms length pounce. Grab with both arms, put your whole body into it like a lumber jack swinging an axe. If you are with another person, hand that prize over to them as fast as possible so you will not be distracted with its protection while you await the rest of your luggage. If any of your luggage goes missing or gets damaged, the best thing you can do is utilize your impressive vocabulary of vulgarities to its fullest. The venting will be epic, but the emotional swing will bring you from the Samual L. Jackson Ezekiel 25:17 scene in Pulp Fiction to Mel Gibson on the rack in Braveheart. “My Luggage!” he cried as they told him it could take up to 24 hours to find it and have it delivered to the resort.

Pro Tip: Get luggage that is not black or common. Something with a unique shape or design will stick out. Adding colorful stickers or ribbons may seem like a good idea but will eventually fail, because baggage handlers will send your luggage through a device that shears off anything and everything that is not secured to your bag by ultra strong carbon nanotube filament.

Nostradamus

Leaving the Airport

Find your bus or taxi and get on it. If you are doing some sort of ride share like Uber or Lyft, then please at least find the pick-up location before ordering the ride. If you are somewhere other than the designated pick-up, the driver will call you and you will have several minutes of awkward exchanges that sound like this: 

Driver: “I’m your Uber driver Mark, I’m here, where are you?”

You: “Um, I’m by a pole with the number 12 on it.”

Driver: “Are you near the parking lot? I am in the parking lot on the second level.”

You: “There is a parking lot here and a pole with the number 12 on it and there is a Hertz rental car across the street.”

Driver: “I am in the parking lot, on level two next to a row of orange cones.”

You: “I see a fire truck parked next to a cement bollard about thirty feet down the street. I am wearing a red hat and I have a dark blue shirt on.”

Driver: “I am in the parking lot on level two in the ride share lane next to some orange cones. I am driving a black Mazda.”

…You get the point.

And one final note, please enjoy the journey.

The Panama Canal Via Holland America

Our Holland America Panama Canal Experience.

The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most amazing feats of engineering. The history of the canal and the beautiful scenery are enough to inspire romance, that said, there are only a few ways to see the Panama Canal. There is an observation tower near the Pacific entrance of the Canal where you can watch ships enter the first lock while an expert tells you the story of the Panama Canal. This is an inexpensive way to experience the canal, however it leaves much to the imagination and much of the romance of the canal is lost. Aside from joining the crew of an international freighter or paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to traverse the canal in your private yacht, the only other way to truly experience this magnificent wonder of the world is by taking a Panama Canal cruise.

This is the itinerary. I will write about most of these other places at a later date, so stay tuned! On a side note, when you are in your cabin, you can watch the progress of your journey on the TV. It is interesting, but obviously the plot is a bit slow, so eventually it becomes a sort of screen saver.

Ours began in the San Diego harbor where we boarded the Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam. The Nieuw Amsterdam took us south along the coast of Mexico stopping along the way at some great ports of call in Mexico, and throughout Central America. I will write separately about those ports of call, so stay tuned. By the time we reached the Panama Canal, we had already adapted to the time differences and shipboard life, so we were well rested when we arrived off the coast of Panama before dawn. We sat on our balcony for about a half an hour trying to take photos of the city in the dark, but we were too far away to capture it meaningfully. I will note here that the excitement builds up until you finally come to grips with the reality that you are actually waiting in a queue with other ships who need to enter the canal before you, that is when you decide to go back into the cabin and order breakfast.

Although we could see the canal from our balcony, I highly recommend reserving a cabana. First of all, the walls of the locks are quite high, especially when you are on the low water step so you may be looking at a wall for a while and since the ship sits quite snuggly in the locks you will probably feel a bit claustrophobic after a while. The cabanas are on one of the highest decks passengers can access so you will have a perfect view of all lock activities from up there. Also, they serve free champagne, cheese, fruits and deliver drinks and lunch directly to you. From the cabanas, one can easily get a 360 view of the entire journey, rather than a fixed view from the balcony. On our cruise, the Cabanas were relatively easy to book, but we were advised that on other cruises you typically need to book them well in advance, or before you even embark.

The view from our balcony. Those little row boats row up to this massive Cruise Ship to help attach the cables that are used to pull the ship through the canal by several engines that ride on rails along the side of the canal. It is pretty impressive.

We didn’t see anybody wearing Panama hats and most people dressed for a day at the pool, so you can easily eliminate such romantic imagery from your imagination in advance so as not to be disappointed, if such things even excite your imagination. For me, the Canal itself was enough. You are essentially on a lake that at times becomes so narrow only one large vessel can pass through at a time. When you imagine how much work went into this extreme feat of engineering and marvel at the beautiful jungle landscape around you, you will be transported back in time to the days when donkey carts pulled ships through the locks and workers routinely died of malaria. At this point you begin looking out for mosquitos, but you will be pleasantly surprised to find that there are no mosquitos, at least none that made it all the way up to the Cabanas.

This is Centennial Bridge, which connects the Pan-American Highway across the canal. Thanks again to Holland America Line for their excellent photos.

The panama Canal experience is an all day event. A pilot that works for the canal boards the cruise ship, presumably to help the Captain navigate the canal and perhaps satisfy the insurance company that insures the canal and or the cruise ship. At the end of the journey, you realize that just that morning, you were in the pacific ocean and now you are in the caribbean, which is on the other side of a continent.

We were invited to take a tour of the ship. It was good to see that we had not made too big of a dent in their supply of booze with our extreme drinking package.

Just a few notes about the ship and Holland America in general. If you are familiar with cruising you know that there are a few different types of cruise lines that cater to different people. There are the family oriented lines that have water slides and go-carts, not to mention the thousands of small screaming children who gravitate to such activities like moths to a light bulb and there are the cruise ships that attract a more mature crowd. Holland America’s ships are the latter. I am not disparaging the family centric cruise lines, because they have their purpose and are probably quite fun for those who have children, or are more child tolerant than I am, but being on a ship seemingly free of children, for me and others like me, is much more enjoyable and relaxing. There is one caveat though, and that is that some fully grown adults still act like children from time to time. If you think I am joking, just try to cross the Lido Deck cafeteria during peak hours without being mowed down by a mob of Baby Boomers rushing the soft-serve ice-cream machine. You will become invisible to them, I guarantee it. I tried to capture this phenomenon on film, however it is a bit like getting a close up picture of an angry grizzly bear and I would be too embarrassed to explain to the nurse in the infirmary just exactly how I acquired what I can only assume would be gruesome injuries. To be fair, walking around the rest of the ship is quite easy and never really feels crowded. We managed to get a seat at just about any bar we wanted, any time we wanted. The crew was very friendly and the bartenders seem to have a preternatural ability to remember our favorite drinks. The crew, and by extension many Holland America cruisers are very loyal to the Holland America line. Some crew have been with Holland America for decades and they keep the same travelers as if they are one big family. It is really a nice thing to behold.

The desert prep part of the ship tour felt a bit Willy Wonka. For a ship with maybe four kids on it, it sure looks like they are preparing for a major children’s birthday party.

Here are my two recommendations when sailing on a Holland America ship.

  1. Get Club Orange. Club Orange gives you some nice perks, including early embarkation and disembarkation (though apparently we did not need the later as I will explain below). You also get priority seating in the dining room, so you can simply walk past the dozen or so passengers waiting to be seated. There are other smaller perks as well, but when you see the embarkation line at the cruise terminal you will be glad you joined Club Orange.
  2. If you like cocktails get a drink package. Robin and I got the highest possible drink package, which essentially allowed us to order almost anything we want aside from a handful of premium drinks. Considering that we could order our signature drink, the Specter, which is half Bombay Gin and half Grey Goose Vodka straight up and not pay a dime extra for it. We also had shots of Don Julio tequila and whatever Mezcals they had aboard on our package as well. The only downside is that premium wines are extra, so you either stick with those that are included, which were good, or pay more for better wine. We stuck with the included wines for most meals and never had a moment of regret. And here is one last helpful hint. Bottled water is critical to your survival when you are on a cruise. Some ports of call are in hot Central American and Mexican locals where dehydration happens easily. Further complicating things is the fact that it may be hard to find bottled water when you are in unfamiliar territory or on an excursion to a remote location. If you have the drinks package, you can get one bottle per person at each bar, and if you hide that bottle in a bag you can probably ask for another at the same bar, from the same bartender when you order your next round of drinks. Yes, I am suggesting you use your expensive drinks package to hoard water. You won’t regret my advice and unless you are planning on some Animal House style drinking benders you will never reach your daily drink limit of 15 drinks so hoard away.
This is where they keep the nuclear warheads.

Disembarkation in Miami was easy, and not because we had Club Orange. We opted to have our luggage sent directly to the airport by Holland America, but in doing so, we were randomly selected for a bag inspection. When we had our badges scanned near the gangway, they pulled us aside and escorted us past about a hundred people waiting to get off the ship. The agent in the terminal asked us if we had anything to declare and then sent our luggage through the x-ray machine. Everyone was polite and it wasn’t a big ordeal at all, plus we skipped the line we would probably have had to wait in for a while longer before our Club Orange priority disembarkation feature could kick in.

On the way out, we had the rare opportunity to watch another ship get lifted up as we were going down. These fellas were taking selfies, waiving at the cruise line guests and generally having a good time joking around.

Stay tuned for details about the various ports of call we experienced on this fantastic journey through the Panama Canal.

Area 51 Road Trip

This is the high desert. If you don’t have any gas in your car, you will be alone on the side of the road for a very long time.

The truth is out there, or so it is said, but the desert can keep a lot of secrets. We had planned a trip to Ely, Nevada, which is pronounced Elee, as if it were named after Robert E. Lee, but its not named after him. The plan was to look at some potential investment properties, but we threw that plan out the window after a quick drive past one of the properties and decided that after four hours on the road, we should find a room and rest up for the drive back to Henderson, Nevada. After we checked in, we did a quick yelping session for a good dinner spot and found a place called Racks. The place was clean, had good food and the staff were accommodating enough to put the US Open on a television that was showing football. Robin had buffalo wings, and somehow, I let the little heat devil in my head convince me into getting the extra hot wings. Those little buggers really did a number on me so I got very little sleep. I spent the night and early hours of the next morning whispering “come on ice-cream” while on the toilet. After dinner, we wandered down the street. Ely is a quiet town. You can stand in the middle of the road with no worry of getting hit. We found our way to Mr. G’s and had one of our signature Specter Martini (recipe below). We learned a little bit about the real estate investment properties we were considering and so our first impressions were bolstered by local knowledge. We had a late checkout and took full advantage of it, and then set out for home feeling more or less fully rested.

Specter Martini

The Specter Martini is the anti James Bond. It consists of one-half gin, preferably Sapphire and one-half vodka, preferably Grey Goose. Shake with ice, add a twist or an olive and sip. No vermouth or any other bar mixers are to be added. What are you crazy?

Ely, Nevada industrial arts. I wanted to solve the labyrinth but we also wanted to get a drink at a local bar.
We stopped in for a drink at Mr. G’s after not completing the labyrinth.
The highway goes on seemingly forever. You can stand in the middle of the highway and set up a perfect photograph without even seeing a car in either direction. After a few hours on this road, I half-expected to see Mad Max riders with those weird heads on sticks attached to their shoulders screaming down the highway menacing children and eager to syphon gas from our Jeep.
Here is the video, including test footage from using the EVO Pro gimbal. Don’t forget to use headphones, the music sounds much better that way!

We were about half-way back to Henderson when we came to a fork in the road. We had passed this fork on our way up to Ely, but did not notice the signs or the fifty foot tall aluminum alien indicating the route towards the infamous Area 51. On a whim, we banged a right and decided to take a side trip to see if we can’t figure out just what the hell is going on out there in Area 51. We turned around when we passed a sign that said there is no gas for over 150 miles, stopped at the nearest gas station and topped off since we were well below half a tank. We technically could have made it to the next gas station, but we would have been rolling in on fumes.

This place serves miners. It is in Ely, Nevada. If you are under 21 and you think you are getting a drink here, I’ll save you a trip by suggesting you look up miner in the dictionary first. See what I did there. Clever huh.

The first stop featured a fifty foot tall aluminum alien. We went inside and encountered a gift shop of the third kind. There was everything from Star Trek paraphernalia to space alien themed tequila. We wandered around a bit and listened in as the shopkeeper gave advice on how best to approach the infamous Area 51 facility. It involved a lot of finding small wooden things on the side of the road and taking a dirt path nearby. Based on the size of the local mountain ranges, I suspect finding the secret base may well involve some free climbing and/or hot-air ballooning as well. Never mind that this is a top-secret US Government military base and you are continuously warned that you will be shot on site if you attempt to enter it, you came all this way, its time to rush the fences and find those dang spaceships. I’ll be right behind you guys, just finishing up my coffee, mkay.

Robin definitely had a better angle on this giant metal alien. I managed to snap a photo of its crotch, so be thankful I didn’t post that one here. Shortly after this was taken, its eyes glowed red and it shot some sort of energy beam at our Jeep. Thankfully it missed our parked Jeep and hit a cow instead.

We continued on deeper into Area 51. Look, Area 51 itself is not the military base, Area 51 is a large piece of desert in the middle of Nevada. It is a map designation created by the US Government in the 1950s when they were busy blowing up nuclear weapons in the desert and nothing more. I haven’t checked, but my guess is that Area 51 is sandwiched between areas 50 and 52, assuming the folks who drew these maps had any sort of common sense, or perhaps there is no such pattern so as to keep curious Soviet spies from finding anything interesting. The military base that has military patrols authorized to use lethal force regardless of how certain you are about the presence of alien technology thereupon is located somewhere within this massive area. More specifically, it is located in a dry lakebed called Groom Lake. All you need to do is bang a left somewhere in the middle of this unforgivingly massive desert and there you are, five feet away from getting shot by a professional military marksman. Best of luck on your journey. Robin’s theory as to how this whole Area 51 phenomenon started goes like this: One day, back in the 50s some board military types went into a local bar and wanted to impress some pretty ladies so they told a tall tale about seeing an alien spaceship or something along those lines and the story went what we would consider the 1950s version of viral. Did those soldiers get laid? Probably yup. Did the locals get an opportunity to open gift ships? Uh-huh. Were their superiors happy? Probably not. For a few beers, a roll in the hay with a few nice ladies and accidentally letting everybody on the planet know the location of their top secret base, they probably got KP duty for the remainder of their service. It beats doing alien autopsies and mutilating cattle.

Evidence of a cattle mutilation… with cheese, a nice red sauce, rice and refried beans.
Area 51 security guard out shopping for tequila and t-shirts. He must have heard our plans to hot-air balloon into the restricted zone.

After about an hour of driving, we came upon the little Aleinn, which is basically an aluminum shack with a bar/giftshop inside. This place is in the middle of nowhere, or as the State of Nevada calls it, Rachel Nevada. If you are still having trouble finding Area 51, I suggest you find your way to the Extraterrestrial Highway, and um… bang a left somewhere. The proprietors of the Little Aleinn (a word that seems to confound spellcheck), do not want you to take pictures inside of the building. I don’t know why, its a diner with a bar and tiny gift shop in the corner. Hanging from the ceiling above the bar is about five billion dollars in various currencies, but mostly US Dollars. Each dollar has something written on it from a visitor, all of which are certainly human visitors as I sincerely doubt space aliens are buying coffee and tequila shots with Earthly currencies when they can probably trade in exotic dark matter or whatever it is they use to make their ships travel faster than light across the galaxy. Then again, their space ships had to get towed out of a ditch by local towing services, so they are probably out of cobalt thorium – G or whatever. They obviously missed the sign that said, “no dark matter facilities for 155 million light years.” They make me feel smart for having turned around for gas.

This fella (fella?) is considerably shorter than his cow melting aluminum cousin down the road. And more hospitable…

The bartender/gift-shop sales consultant was terribly busy helping the dozens of patrons lining up to buy alien themed things and so she was slow to take our order. We got one cup of coffee and two waters. I stared at a thick binder labeled “Sightings Log” on the spine. It was stuffed like your aunt’s photo album with what I can only assume were UFO sightings, though presumably someone sitting at the bar had a bartender sighting of his own and managed to squeeze in a cheeseburger order. The bartender was understanding and gave us our coffee for free. We left hungry and decided to head to Tonopah Nevada.

They traveled 155 million lightyears for crying out loud, the least you could do is offer valet.
Intergalactic spaceship rescued by rusty human tow-truck. How very Nevada.
Tonopah at dusk. Cue western whistling song.
The bar at the Mizpah Hotel. The bottle with the crooked cork is the one I was drinking with lunch. Obviously the bartender could tell I wasn’t going to leave the bar with just one glass.
Nothing to see here folks, just us space aliens mindin’ er own biniss.

We made our way through various military weapons testing sites and found Tonopah atop a high hill nestled in between the peaks of mountains. It felt exactly like we were driving into the old west, because, well, we were. Tonopah is an old mining camp that evolved into a small town. We checked into the Mizpah Hotel before finding out it is haunted. The place has a pretty creepy vibe, but in a good touristy way, not that oh god, we’re all going to die sort of way. The hotel was recently restored so it was clean, comfortable and had plenty of amenities. We had a few drinks at the bar and a light lunch and then we returned to our room to rest. Our room was on the 5th floor, about thirty feet away from the room where the Lady in Red was murdered. Jack Dempsy used to be a bouncer at the Mizpah and as a result has a dining room named after him. Before Dempsy was bouncing ruffians from the Mizpah, the Earps were there doing whatever it is Earps do. Before They left, they financed the Northern Saloon. We didn’t visit the Northern Saloon, but we did find a nice Mexican restaurant.

Someone was murdered about five feet from where this picture was taken. Also, someone was kind enough to leave out a pot of hot coffee just five feet from where this picture was taken. Thank you kind stranger, wherever you are.

The El Marques restaurant boasts cocktails and a ten foot TV, and they lived up to both boasts nicely. The smaller TVs above the bar had NASCAR racing and the ten-footer had Formula-1 on. We ordered our signature margaritas and the nice little old Mexican lady behind the bar made us some homemade habanero salsa when we asked for something spicier than the house salsa. That little heat devil always gets his way. We had a wonderful dinner and basically had the bar to ourselves the whole night so we chatted up the workers. After about four margaritas each, we found out that one of the waitresses had her 21st birthday about four months ago so we decided to buy her a shot in celebration of her birthday. Of course you can’t let her celebrate alone, so we ordered shots for ourselves. Top shelf, not well. Its a birthday celebration, not some half-cocked frat party.

Our walk to dinner in Tonopah. Sweet ride.
Where we ate dinner. In case you aren’t keeping up with the story.
Our walk home from dinner. Its the front of the car this time, thus indicating our direction of travel to be the opposite as it was earlier in the evening.

We slept nicely at the Mizpah and had a decent breakfast. We happened to have perfect timing checking into the hotel, because Burning Man had just let out and its temporary citizens were just starting to arrive. I could practically smell the dread as we passed the janitor in the hall the next morning. He knows his vacuum can’t handle that volume of sand. Its going to be coming out of every single thing the Burners bring in, including their own flesh folds.

I guess if you don’t know what this is a picture of, you probably aren’t looking hard enough. The truth is out there. Do doo do doo dee doo.

During the trip, we managed to test out our recently purchased EVO Pro iPhone (and other types as well) camera gimbal. The desert highways of Nevada, though relatively well maintained are bumpy and our Jeep’s huge tires and off-road suspension only serve to accentuate the bumps. If you were to film the road while going nearly 90 MPH in a 70 MPH zone (seriously there isn’t a cop for hundreds of miles) with your hands, the resulting video would put Blair Witch videography to shame. It would look like you left your camera running as you attempted to escape a zombie apocalypse. The EVO Pro worked nicely regardless of the bumps. Initially, I did not have the motors calibrated perfectly so some of my videos leaned to the right a bit. It took me about five minutes to calibrate this thing on-the-go and then things straightened out. The batteries in the gimbal were quite reliable considering how often it needed to engage the motors and the ever-on bluetooth connection to my phone. The stability of image was excellent even when fully zoomed in on the horizon. The dead bugs on the windshield however were an ever-present filming hazard so we blew through an entire tank of washer fluid and had to refill in Tonopah. The only time I had an issue with the EVO Pro was when I stepped out of the car to film a shot of the desert near Area 51. The gimbal’s motors went completely haywire and caused it to gyrate. It felt like I was holding an angry snake by the middle. I think they used alien technology to cause my EVO Pro to whig out like that, because it hasn’t done it again since.

The EVO Pro Gimbal is available on Amazon. We are an Amazon associate so please use the link to purchase so we can keep our travel blog going.

The stability of image was excellent even when fully zoomed in on the horizon.

We never saw any aliens, however, there were a few hours of time lost during the trip that are not explainable. No, wait, I figured it out, Ely is in a different time zone, so it is one hour ahead of Henderson. Never mind. If there are secrets out there in Area 51, the desert is not letting them out and the US Government is definitely not letting you in.

We are travel advisors with Cruise Planners and we would love to help you plan your next adventure. Happy Trails!

Secret Margarita Recipe

This video has nothing at all to do with margaritas. It does involve cervezas though.

Here is a short video from our time in Tulum. Some of the advantages of traveling during the off seasons are that you have less traffic, when you see the bike ride part of the video, you will soon see how such a place can easily become a traffic nightmare. You also get into most restaurants with ease. Sit wherever you want sir, we are not busy. That said, some places close down during the off seasons so you don’t get to enjoy them at all. We also had total access to the hotel bar, which is pretty important to us. When you sit at a busy bar (or rather if you can find a seat) you do not get the same attention you would get if there are only a few people sitting there. The bartenders are more chatty with small crowds as are the other bar patrons. You never know who you will meet at the bar.

Our chatty bartender made us the best margaritas. Now, Robin and I are quite picky about our margaritas. We like them strong, mostly sugar free and we like to experience different local variations.

Our Base Margarita:

  1. Silver Tequila (double shot depending on mood)
  2. Fresh Lime Juice (be careful with this one, some bars will have concentrated lime juice or other more bar friendly concoctions that while technically constitute “lime juice” are quite far from tasing the same, especially for this recipe.)
  3. A splash of Grand Mariner.
  4. No other ingredients need be added at this point, especially agave nectar, which is practically a default.
  5. Add ice and salt the rim.
  6. Enjoy.
The basic margarita done to perfection.
You can’t see it from here, but just beyond that cactus is a sheer cliff. No railings to be found in Todos Santos Mexico, just plenty of drinks and dangerous cliffside seating arrangements.

Spicy Margarita:

Use the same recipe as above, but add in some sort of spicy tequila. But where does one get spicy tequila? Well our bartender in Tulum had the answer and since he wasn’t particularly busy, he gave us his secret recipe. Ok, its not a secret and its not particularly complicated, but here it is.

  1. Cut a handful of habanero peppers into slices.
  2. Remove all of the seeds and ribs otherwise your tequila will taste bitter.
  3. Empty a bottle of silver tequila (keep it cheap) into a large mason jar and add the peppers.
  4. Let sit for a day or two.
  5. Use a strainer to remove the peppers and then a funnel to return the tequila to its original bottle.
  6. Make the standard margarita as described above using MOSTLY regular silver tequila and then add a small spoonful of the spicy tequila. CAUTION: This tincture of habanero and tequila is quite strong.
I think this might have been a margarita of the spicy kind, but I cannot seem to recall the entire evening.

Mezcal Margaritas:

For a smokey twist on the traditional margarita, use mezcal instead of silver tequila. One bit of advice, do not use cheap mezcal. You want a mezcal you enjoy for its flavor. If you cannot enjoy sipping the mezcal from a snifter or a shot glass, then you probably won’t like it in your margarita either. With these margaritas, we tend to experiment with other forms of citrus, such as orange, grapefruit or even pomegranate.

All prices are in pesos so don’t have a heart attack okay.
Margaritas served in plastic cups at a beachside bar that shall be the subject of a future post. Yes those are hula hoops.
In case you are uncertain which bathroom to use, the kind proprietors of the Hotel California in Todos Santos have provided a helpful bathroom decision guide.
Found this sage advice in Tulum. I usually remind myself of this sign when I order margaritas at the bar, but by the time the second round arrives, the advice has succumbed to the alcohol.

Did I forget to mention that we are travel advisors? We can help you plan your next adventure even if it mostly involves sitting at a bar very far away from home. Just Click on the button above! Go ahead, don’t be shy…

The Last Party

Lisbon from the balcony of our cruise ship. You can’t see it from here, but you can hear thousands of locals cheering on the Portuguese soccer team as the go on to beat France in the Eurocup.

We had wandered out of our hotel in Lisbon Portugal rather late in search of local cuisine. We knew we were close to the popular Las Ramblas area, but we weren’t quite sure just how far away. We wandered in the general direction of Las Ramblas and hoped that once we were closer, our restaurant choices would become more robust. There were a few high-end eateries along the way, but we didn’t want to pay a fortune for a decent Portuguese meal and we didn’t want to wait forty minutes for a table or fight for a seat at the bar either, so we continued.

We had wandered out of our hotel in Lisbon Portugal rather late in search of local cuisine.

We wandered through dark residential areas along steep winding streets down towards the bottom of what seemed like an endless hill. We eventually found Las Ramblas, but we were smack in the middle of the retail zone, so our restaurant choices were fast food chains or breakfast joints that had been closed since noon. We stopped in the middle of a small park and panned around 360 degrees to get a better sense of whats around. Robin said, “I’ve been here before many years ago and remember there being an area with a bunch of restaurants,” so the obvious choice here was to continue wandering. I had chosen to wear my Converse sneakers, which, while stylish, are also not ideal for long walks on steep sloped streets with uneven pavement and cobble stones. “But maybe we should just go back to the hotel and eat at the restaurant there before it gets too late.” She added, effectively muddling my desire to continue on despite the pain. So we headed back up Las Ramblas for a few minutes and as we passed now familiar sights some little devil in our brains told us we were about to ruin our only night in Portugal. You see, we were only supposed to be there for one night and then we are to board a cruise ship and embark on a cruise through the mediterranean. The hotel restaurant is okay. Its a bit pricey and the food is nothing to complain about, but we already had lunch there and our wanderlust had been eating away at us since we arrived. No, we are not going to go back. Lets press on.

If you wander far enough you eventually find what you were looking for. This little street has plenty of restaurants to choose from, most with outdoor seating.

We continued down the cobblestone paths that meander through the greenbelt that runs down the center of Las Ramblas towards the bottom of the hill. We had walked miles without finding just the right restaurant. We wandered into a few back streets in search of fine Portuguese cuisine and finally found the trove of restaurants Robin had recalled earlier. We sat down at a little table on the sidewalk and our waiter came and took our order. We feasted on a local seafood platter. It was exactly what we were hoping to find. We drank local variations of gin and tonic from giant goblets and got nicely buzzed. We enjoyed a bottle of local red wine. The wine was excellent and still modestly priced. There was a television with soccer commentary and replays from previous games playing. The waiter explained to us that Portugal made it to the finals in the Eurocup and will be playing the next day. We chatted with our waiter about soccer for a bit, but it seemed like we were distracting him from the all important analysis leading up to the big match between France and Portugal. A lot is at stake for sure and that came through in his tone despite his broken English. A woman wandered down the street as we were finishing up our meal. She was quite drunk and began yelling “This is not authentic Portuguese food!” at the top of her lungs. The waiter just yelled something in Portuguese that probably translates to: “go home you drunken tart.” The waiter apologized for the distraction despite the obvious indicators that we both found the exchange amusing and then his eyeballs dutifully returned to the television, so we requested our bill and wandered off into the night.

The seafood platter was delicious. The Portuguese have certainly kept up their end of the bargain with King Neptune. It had been a long walk and we were starving, so I wasn’t about to frame up the shot of our food like a professional hence the odd fork position.

I don’t know what it is about drinking large goblets of gin and finishing off a bottle of local Portuguese wine that makes us better at getting around and more keen to explore, but it just does. We took the long way home. We wandered the back streets hoping to satisfy our wanderlust. We were not disappointed.

Goblets of gin make me smile.

We had turned towards the general direction of our hotel when we looked up a narrow and rather steep dead end street. There were dozens of locals milling about outside, smoking, drinking and carrying on vibrant conversations with each other. The energy of the area was just to compelling so we wandered up the steep street towards the locus of all the activity. The energy was flowing from the inside of an old run down building. Near the top of the dead end street there were concrete stairs that led up to a dark entrance. There was a rather intimidating looking fella sitting on a chair at the entrance, presumably, he was a bouncer, but ones imagination tends to forgo the obvious and conjure up all sorts of anxiety inducing thoughts. The mood of the crowd did not match up with the anxiety this bouncer generated, but the crowd is local and, well, we are very much the opposite of local. Are we wandering into some kind of territorial situation here? Is this a no tourists zone?

The vortex of people that sucked us in. Blurriness of photo brought to you by goblets of gin.

As we passed through the open doorway the bouncer nodded at us and we continued down a dark hallway completely covered in graffiti. The drinks we had for dinner were now more or less fully saturated into our bloodstream and therefore we were approaching peak intoxication, which is the best time to make the decision to wander past an imposing foreign bouncer into a dark graffiti covered hallway. But something lured us deeper. The music was upbeat and pleasantly foreign. I don’t know what it is about music in other languages that makes it so alluring, perhaps unfamiliar language combined with a slightly foreign take on a popular genre makes the music more exotic. The drum beat echoed off the concrete walls and lured us closer. The hallway led to what seemed to be an old gymnasium with concrete walls covered in more graffiti. Since the graffiti was mostly in Portuguese or nonsense scribbles, I have no idea whether they were gang tags or peace signs, but I opted to believe they were peace signs. I opted to believe they were words written out of joy and not hate. Nobody seemed hateful and nobody confronted us. As we wandered further into the building the crowd became more dense. I moved my wallet to a front pocket, but only because I didn’t want to keep imagining that every bump or brush of my ass was a pickpocket. The place did not have a pickpocket vibe despite the darkness and graffiti.

Imposing bodyguards greeting guests attending the “last party”.

There was a line at the bar a mile long and a mile wide. Everyone waited patiently and most people didn’t push except for a few assholes now and then. We chatted up a Portuguese fella that was next to us in line and he explained in broken English that this was the “last party.” We didn’t quite understand what he meant by the last party. Was it the last party of the month? The last party before the Eurocup finals? Had we missed the news about the impending end of the world because our waiter preferred soccer commentary and highlights? Was the apocalypse happening outside and we just couldn’t feel civilization crumbling to the ground because of all the gin and wine? Well, it turns out that someone bought the building and was planning on turning it into some kind of boutique hotel. A popular party spot was about to fall off the Earth forever so you better live it up now. Our new friend bought us a couple of beers and later in the evening we returned the favor.

The strange gymnasium space leading into a more homely and cozy party venue.
The stairway to nowhere.
I was certain this said something more profound than “first floor” but alas, knowing what floor you are on is popular everywhere.

It is hard to describe this place and I am afraid the pictures will not be adequate. We wandered from room to room gently nudging our way through the crowd. It was hot and loud but everyone was enjoying their last party. There was a sway to the crowd. You could see friends connecting long distance using hand gestures, nods or simply yelling across the room. The decor was odd to say the least. It felt like a punk venue that had been decorated by local hipster artists at the advice of the local drunks. There were sofas and chairs to sit on, but people had claimed seats hours earlier and seemed to have no need to move.

A little bit punk…
A little bit local hipster artist…
A little bit local drunk… Um, I got these things that don’t work and we can um… burp… put them on a wooden shelf I painted um… green. Plus some strip lights… I’m pretty sure this designer is related to the “authentic Portuguese cuisine” nazi.

We explored this party, finished our beers and wandered back out into the streets. With plenty of alcohol stimulating our internal compasses we managed to find our hotel easily despite our detours. The next day we boarded our cruise ship. We reached the port by taxi some time in the early afternoon and they were already setting up the large projection screens and sound systems they would use to project the final Eurocup match to thousands. Our ship left port during the last few minutes of the match. We could hear the glorious cheers as Portugal won the Eurocup. You could feel the pride as the fireworks began to go off everywhere. Somewhere there is a waiter in the throes of incredible bliss ignoring everything and completely unable to take his eyes off the television screen, for to do so might mean he has to take his mind away from the fantastic final score: 1 – 0 Portugal. In some dark alley in Lisbon there is another “last party” more crowded and more energetic than the last “last party” and it will no doubt go down as the most glorious evening of somebody’s entire life. I’m just glad we had the opportunity to taste that sensation and live through the eyes of these locals if only for one last party.

The neon sign above the bar. Taking a picture of anything in this crowd is nearly impossible. Do you want beer, or do you want to take pictures. It is an important choice.
The ceiling? Did I actually take a picture of the ceiling? Its fun to discover interesting photos after a night of drinking.
These folks were headed into the “last party” as we were headed home. Don’t worry there’s still plenty of beer.
Our internal compass well calibrated by alcohol we determined that our hotel was probably this way.

Did I mention that we can help you plan your next adventure? Click the button to begin wandering globally.

Worldwide Connection

Now would be a good time to reconnect to civilization and figure out the weather situation.

We were in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, half-way between the Italian islands of Ventotene and Ischia when the clouds began to darken.


We were in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, half-way between the Italian islands of Ventotene and Ischia when the clouds began to darken. We had spent the night in a small Roman port in Ventotene and got up early to the sound of the harbor master trying to extract what must have been months of past due mooring fees from our neighbor. It is important to note at this point that the night and early morning hours before being awakened to the sounds of a grumpy harbor master yelling “Mario” at the top of his lungs into an empty boat was completely sleep free. You see, there was some sort of saint holiday that weekend. I don’t know which saint it was and I never bothered to find out, because knowing would not likely help me sleep. Whoever this saint is, the Italians on the quaint island of Ventotene felt compelled to spend the equivalent of their entire island’s GDP on fireworks and techno music. Yes, from sunset to about 3:30 AM there were fireworks going off in between the heavy bass thumps and screeching synthesizer arpeggios of modern Italian techno music. So we didn’t sleep really at all. Apparently neither did Mario, as he managed to get away from his boat well before anyone could come to collect. He couldn’t have gotten far, Ventotene is a tiny island.


Mario making his escape while the harbor master is preoccupied with the boat races underway.

So there we were, tired and bleary eyed. No amount of coffee or espresso could fix us. None. And now, after days of no wind, our little sailboat was once again motoring towards Ischia. We had anchored around Ischia on our first two nights out. We were familiar with a popular anchorage, but seeing as how this was our first time bareboat sailing in the Tyrrhenian Sea, we wanted to see other parts of this beautiful Island. The clouds grew darker. No problem. Then there was a bit of drizzle. Still no problem for we have rain coats and hats. Then the drizzle turned to heavy rain. Dangerous for walking on deck, but otherwise not a barrier to our motoring effort.


What was not unreliable was my Wi-Fi signal. We had purchased a SkyRoam Solis prior to leaving for Italy.


Robin was up on deck keeping watch and manually steering our chartered sailing boat because the boat’s GPS system was terribly unreliable and therefore the autopilot that uses GPS was also terribly unreliable. What was not unreliable was my Wi-Fi signal. We had purchased a SkyRoam Solis prior to leaving for Italy. If you are unfamiliar with this technology then let me explain. The SkyRoam hub is an orange cylinder about the size of a coffee saucer and about an inch thick. The technology finds the strongest cellular data signal within its vast network of carriers throughout the world and connects to that signal automatically. Your little orange oversized hockey puck becomes a wireless hotspot for multiple devices. You obviously pay for this service and the company offers a multitude of plans. We only bought day passes for $9.99 each, which is a tremendous value as you will see later on in this post. This day pass gives you 24 hours of unlimited data on the strongest local network available. Out in the middle of the Tyrrhenian sea, with shoddy onboard GPS, one can only use old paper charts, or the cruising guides that come with the boat, most of which are older than the boat herself. Look, as romantic as it is to plot a course on a paper chart, what with the unfolding, the drawing of lines and the using of the dividers and protractors etc.., we are not pirates despite our volume of alcohol intake, we are modern people with modern technology and we should act accordingly, especially in a storm.



Click on the image to purchase your own SkyRoam from Amazon. We need ours and frankly as Amazon affiliates, we make some cash if you buy from our link.


The SkyRoam hub is an orange cylinder about the size of a coffee saucer and about an inch thick. The technology finds the strongest cellular data signal within its vast network of carriers throughout the world and connects to that signal automatically.


So there I am below deck, patiently plotting our course to an anchorage on the side of Ischia we had not yet seen. I was on my iPad, using modern technology in between two relatively small islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. I pop my head up into the rain to let Robin know we should probably change course soon if we are to reach our destination. She looked at me like I had fourteen heads, so I climbed up onto the deck and looked around. She pointed to the darkest cloud on the horizon and said, “We are not going that way.” Well, “that way” was the way we would have to go if we wanted to get to our preferred anchorage. So I go back down, sit in the navigator’s seat and pull my iPad out once again to find an alternative. Perhaps something on the east or west side of the island? Lets check the weather apps. The bad weather is headed towards the north of the island, but is sweeping around it making the tiny anchorages on the east and west out of bounds. The south was less likely to get stormy, but the swells were coming from the south and having already anchored two nights in the best southern anchorage, I already knew it would be a rough ride. There is a small harbor on the east side of the island, so I go back up on deck where the rain was falling so hard it must have been violating the laws of physics. I explain my new plan is to take shelter in a small harbor on the east side of the island. We would prefer to not have to pay for another night in a harbor, but at least it will be relatively safe. I explain our change of course to Robin, she looks around for a second to assess the dark clouds and the rain and then kaboom! The lightening struck so close you could feel the thunder rattle your bones. The sun was over the mainland, over our home port of Procida and the thunderheads were over our projected route towards an unknown harbor. This was no time to call an unknown harbor and barter for a mooring with a harbor master who may or may not be proficient in English. The decision made itself. We are going to take shelter in the only nearby harbor we are familiar with even if that adds another few hours of sailing in the rain.


Seems like an easy decision now that I look at the pictures.

She pointed to the darkest cloud on the horizon and said, “we are not going that way.”


So, why did we buy this SkyRoam device? You may say that our sailing story is an obvious answer to that question and yes, we did buy it to have Wi-Fi on our boat, but that is not the whole story. The year before, we had embarked on a grand tour of Europe. We were on a cruise ship that brought us to dozens of ports in the Mediterranean and then we went through Italy and France, eventually arriving in England. Robin and I are not fond of guided tours. We have nothing against people who love guided tours, its just that it is not how we like to enjoy a place. We like to wander. We like to find a few spots that are within walking, biking or taxi ride distance from our hotel or port and just sort of explore the surroundings. When we were in Europe, I was using a navigation app that is designed for tourists like us – wanderers. You could download the maps to your phone and these maps are huge so they eat up a lot of data, so we tried to make sure all of the maps for a location were downloaded using the cruise ship’s onboard free Wi-Fi, but apparently every single person on the ship must have been binging Game of Thrones the whole time, so the download speeds were so bad that we had to forgo some downloads. Eventually, we gave up on this app and began using Apple maps instead. Though less data hungry, we still used a lot more data than we would have liked and although AT&T sends you those data “alerts” that you have maxed out and will be charged an overage, being lost in the middle of London and having crossed London Bridge a half-dozen times in search of the street we were supposed to be on has a way of changing ones financial priorities when it comes to data usage overseas. Then again, coming home to a massive cellular bill is remarkably sobering and makes one wonder whether or not the British Museum was worth it.


This fella definitely got more sleep than we did.

Then again, coming home to a massive cellular bill is remarkably sobering and makes one wonder whether or not the British Museum was worth it.


Some folks travel so they can disconnect from the noise of modern life. Some folks like to have their gadgets in good working order the whole time they are away. I think it is possible to have your gadgets in good working order and still disconnect, but by having them, you can save time by getting yourself unlost with map apps or better yet make an informed decision out at sea in the middle of a thunderstorm. There are a few ways to stay connected while abroad.


Sant Angelo anchorage in the south of Ischia when it is calm and sunny and not dark and stormy because it is difficult to take a decent photo on stormy waters. Perhaps I will have some new photography gear to write about in another post!

First, you can buy a SIM card when you get to your new destination. This can be a cumbersome process. Not all phones can use foreign SIM cards, and those that can may still be locked out, especially if you have a long term service contract. Using a foreign SIM card in your phone also requires you to use a local phone number. If you are in France, you will not be using your US phone number, but rather a French number, so when you call the States, people will think you are French, unless you let them know its you some other way in advance of calling. Robin and I rarely need to make voice calls while abroad. Most of what we do can be done using data. You can make voice calls with numerous apps and none of them require you to have anything more than a basic data connection.


A relaxing evening in a calm anchorage. Though later in the evening we had to move closer to shore as the swells began to take a toll on our sanity.

Second, you can call your American service provider and ask them about calling and data packages for your destinations. Some of these seem affordable up until you use up all of your data trying to find a museum. This option is pretty useful in Mexico. AT&T for instance offered to extend our data and voice plan into Mexico by simply upgrading to a higher plan at a cost of an additional $15 a month. Not bad, especially if you are on an extended stay in Mexico. The only problem with this solution is that often there are limitations to your data, and like the SIM card option, it is only good on one device. Some of these data plans may also prevent you from using your phone’s hotspot, though I think those types of restrictions are less popular these days. And while a plan that includes Mexico is relatively cheap, one cannot say the same for other destinations. Finally, with a cellular plan like this, you are still bound to your particular carrier’s foreign network affiliations. While AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile may have a great network where you live, they may not be as well connected in other areas of the globe.


It is fun to resist the temptation of pulling out your phone and opening a maps app to find your way back, but some of these little Italian villages will demand nothing less. Is it a left or a right at the bottom? I dunno…

Finally, we come to the SkyRoam system. One limitation is that you do not get a voice connection, so if you have to make a phone call, you either have to use an app like WhatsApp or you have to burn some international roaming minutes on your US based phone plan. If you are a talk on the phone all day type of traveler, this is probably not a good option for you. If you are a data hog like us, then it is probably the best option. The pre-purchased day plans worked well for us, because not ever day required us to use data, so we only bought a pass when we needed one and remained quietly off-grid on days we did not. There are other plans, some of which may be more suitable than buying day passes depending on what you are doing and where you are going, so you will have to figure out what method works best for you. While you cannot make voice calls with SkyRoam, you can use it as a hotspot for multiple devices. If you have five people in your group, they can all connect one device. Since the SkyRoam system can connect to practically every cellular network in over 130 countries, you are more likely to get a strong signal, rather than whatever signal your US based device can locate, if any signal at all. There are a few variations of the Skyroam device, some are less expensive than the one listed below and apparently you can also rent these devices so you really don’t need to make a commitment to the hardware. Personally, I am glad we own ours since we can just pack it away whenever we go out wandering globally.



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Robin & Dave