It’s All in the Game

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If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area this week you can feel the excitement in the air. And it builds each day, as we get closer to Super Bowl Sunday when the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos will meet to play in Super Bowl 50 at Levi Stadium.

Football fans have descended on the Bay Area from all over the country and we have seen thousands of them this week when visiting Super Bowl City, (a free-to-the-public fan village designed to celebrate the big game) and going out to Levi Stadium where the game will be played.

Playing in the Super Bowl is the icing on the cake for many football players and getting there is not easy. Only a few are fortunate enough to reach this pinnacle. Both teams have been working tirelessly for months to get there and both have aspirations of winning the game and taking home that Lombardi trophy.

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Both teams know that the object of the game is to win. As travelers we should also know what the “object of the game” is for each trip that we take. And if we want to get the most out of the trip, we need to plan just as carefully as NFL teams do. Here are some of the things that they do to prepare:

THEY WATCH FILM – Football players spend hours studying films – breaking down the strengths and weakness of their opponents. Each player is looking for an edge because the object of the game is to beat the opponent each time the ball is snapped.

As travelers we can also benefit from watching videos of our destinations. YouTube is a wonderful resource for checking out a city, cruise ship, hotel, restaurant, etc. Many of the videos are made by regular travelers just like us, who give very candid information and share their own personal views and experiences.

THEY WORK WITH EXPERTS– They utilize a team of specialists and coaches including position coaches, strength coaches, stretching coaches and even massage therapists. Of course there are books and online resources that professional athletes can use, but teams look to their specialists to prepare their athletes for maximum performance.

There are many professional resources that travelers can benefit from. Travel agents/advisors book travel on a daily basis, so they have a vast knowledge of destinations, trends, advisories, etc. Just be sure to work with someone who has first-hand knowledge about where you’re going. Of course there are books, apps and online resources that travelers can use also if they like. But there is no substitute for hands-on, expert advice.

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DESIGNING PLAYS – Every week each team puts in a game specifically designed for the team that they will face on Sunday. That game plan consists of breaking down the opponents and coming up with a plan of attack to defeat them. Before taking a trip, you need to design a game plan also. That is how you will get the most out of your trip. Tour companies can be a valuable resource when planning a trip. There are literally hundreds of good tour companies who sell packaged tours that include flights, accommodations and excursions. They range in price from ultra luxury (one company offers round-the-world tours by private jet) to more budget-friendly. They can offer better prices since they buy air reservations and hotel rooms in bulk from the travel vendors and can package them at discounted rates. It’s best to work with a tour company that has been recommended by a friend or travel advisor who can give you detailed information about the level of service that a company offers – and remember, you get what you pay for.

TEAM CHEMISTRY – This is a very important part of a winning team. It is often said that a bad attitude in a locker room can poison the entire team. Many players have found themselves out of the NFL for that very reason.

It is just as important to choose your travel partners carefully. I’m sure many of us could tell horror stories about traveling with the wrong person. The people you travel with can make or break your trip.

UNIFORMS – The NFL has very specific guidelines for what their players wear. It is important that they adhere to those guidelines for safety reasons. Travelers should be just as careful when selecting their travel gear. That can apply to wearing the right shoes for the terrain, or even size and shape of luggage. If a piece of luggage is too heavy for you to handle, you’ll have great difficulty lifting it onto buses, or into overhead bins – and you can even risk injury.

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As the famous Raider owner, Al Davis was famously known for saying, “Just win, Baby”. Even though travel is not a game, it is just as important to prepare and stay focused on your travel goals.

Vegas…Revisited

palazzo lobby_thumbOur first trip of 2016 was a getaway to one of the most exciting cities in the world, Las Vegas. It is one of our favorite cities and we manage to go there several times every year. It is constantly evolving  so no matter how often we go, there is always something new to see. It has been referred to (and rightfully so) as an adult’s Disneyland.

We fell in love with Las Vegas  in the late 1980’s when Caesar’s Palace was the biggest resort/casino on the Strip. We went to see Sugar Ray Leonard fight Thomas Hearns for the welterweight title and the fight was billed as “The War”. At that time, Caesar’s had the main arena for world class boxing events. That was our introduction to a star-studded event with world famous entertainers and athletes in attendance. Since then we have attended other major boxing matches including Holyfield/Tyson, George Foreman/Michael Moore, James Toney/Roy Jones Jr and Holyfield/Bowe, Oscar de la Hoya/Chavez, Mayweather/Guerrero and many more.

Through the years we’ve seen the Strip completely change with the addition of resorts like New York/New York, MGM, Monte Carlo, Bellagio, Aria, Vdara, Mandarin Oriental, The Cromwell, Wynn/Encore and our personal favorite the Venetian/Palazzo. But even with the new additions, some of the older resorts like Circus Circus and the Riviera are still going strong.

Although Las Vegas has been known primarily for gambling, it has so much more to offer. In recent years it has developed into a foodie’s paradise. There is a long list of celebrity chefs who have restaurants on the Strip; Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Hubert Keller and Giada de Larentiis, just to name a few. Of course there are numerous buffets and fast foods to choose from. So whether you decide to enjoy Joel Robuchon’s 16-course degustation menu, or a White Castle burger, you can find what you want on the Strip.

Our first meal was at Yardbird Southern Table and Bar where the fried chicken and biscuits were off the hook! They also offered flights of really good craft beers.

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Las Vegas offers such a variety of entertainment choices, it is difficult to decide what to do, but this trip was all about sports. The primary reason for this trip was the NCAA Championship football game between Alabama and Clemson. We decided to watch the game at Lagasse’s Stadium in the Palazzo. Not only is the atmosphere wonderful for watching a sporting event, the service is excellent and the food is delicious. And it gets better…there is even a sports book inside. So Robert and Marcus were able to place their bets and collect their winnings while we were there.

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On day 2 we ventured downtown to Fremont Street to get a taste of old Vegas. It had been a few years since we’d been there and we found that it has changed also with the addition of a zip line and several new street vendors. There were also some interesting street characters roaming about…like the man who strutted around wearing only a cowboy hat and a G-string…or the man singing old Motown hits with his karaoke machine and one background dancer; kind of like watching Gladys Knight and “a Pip”. Binion’s Horseshoe is still a great place for beginning gamblers who want to get away from the high-pressure stakes that can be found at casinos on the Strip.

On day 3 we hung out at the LINQ, one of the newest hotels on the Strip, next to the Flamingo Hotel. Next to the hotel there is a promenade that has lots of great eateries and shops. The promenade is anchored by the High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel – even taller than the London Eye.

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After that it was time for lunch so we headed over to Caesar’s Palace to the Bacchanal Buffet. We’ve sampled several other buffets in town, but this is by far the best. There were so many delicious choices that it took me 10 minutes to see all that was being served – then another 10 minutes to plan my eating strategy. I managed to eat everything that I wanted and still had room for crème brulee AND a Nutella crepe…. The 3 of us made quite a dent in the food and still managed to walk out without waddling…too much.

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Las Vegas is always a fun getaway and every time we go we discover something new. We’re looking forward to our next trip to the Strip because what happens in Vegas for us is always a real good time.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Your Travel Style?

Recently I was asked about my travel strategies, so I’ve decided to share them along with a few recommendations. There is no one size that fits all when it comes to travel. It is a matter of personal taste. One person might be a luxury traveler while another might prefer a no-frills, bare bones travel experience.

IMG_8497I started traveling 30 years ago and my travel taste has evolved through trial & error and experience. After visiting 27 countries, taking 18 cruises and countless other trips around the U.S. here are a few of the things that work for me.

Destination – First I identify and select a destination. That entails doing thorough research on the weather, currency exchange rate, food, culture and political climate. For instance, I visited Istanbul, Turkey several years ago and look forward to going back, but in light of the current events in the region I would not plan that trip right now. Once I select a destination I look at dates and pricing. rob profile pic

Cost – The next thing that I consider is cost, since every trip is driven by my budget. My mindset is that every trip is an investment, so I research my trips as thoroughly as I research my stock investments. I want to get the biggest and best return possible for my investment. There are literally hundreds of travel websites, tour companies and travel sellers. However, I use my resources and expertise as a travel professional to narrow my search. There are many factors to consider when it comes to financing a trip and several payment options are available: cash, credit card, payment plans, etc. All have their pros and cons. I prefer to pay cash, so in order to do that I keep an ongoing travel fund that I contribute to regularly. That way I always have money available to travel. I have also used payment plans since they work very effectively if the trip is booked far out in advance. Some travel packages can be booked with small deposits – sometimes as low as $100 – and the final payment isn’t due until 45 days before departure. That way the trip is paid in full before I leave.

A travel budget can be set aside very easily. For example, if you work Monday-Friday and spend $5/day on lunch or Starbucks, you’re spending $25/week and $100/month. If those monies were put into a travel fund instead, you’d have $1200 each year to put toward your travel.

istanbul rob shoots videoGetting the Best Price – It seems like everyone is in the travel business these days; Costco, AAA, AARP and hundreds of online choices. It can be overwhelming and very time consuming. So how do you narrow it down? The simple way is to consult with a legitimate, experienced travel agent. You need to vet that travel agent the same way that you would vet a doctor or dentist. Find out about their qualifications, certifications and travel experience – don’t do business with a travel agent who doesn’t travel. They will be able to find the best prices for your selected travel dates. Or if you’ve already done research they will let you know if they can beat the deal that you have found. It doesn’t cost anything to find out if they can beat what you’ve found.

Keep in mind that many online prices are not the bottom line prices. The advertised price is always the lead-in price and does not include taxes, fees or other hidden costs. So a cruise that is advertised for $799 can easily cost in excess of $1000 once all components have been added. So when you’re looking at an online price be sure to walk it all the way through to get the true total.

Getting the most out of your trip – You need to determine what you want to get from that trip – relaxation, adventure, luxury, nightlife, culture, nature, etc. You also need to determine your own personal preferences. If you don’t like hot weather, you wouldn’t book a trip to Dubai in June. Or if you don’t like cold weather, you wouldn’t go to Alaska in December. I prefer not to drive in foreign countries, so I take public transportation, taxis and tour buses. It’s all a matter of personal preference.

I have gotten the most out of my travels by using professional tour guides – and I’ve used them all over the world. I have used guidebooks, maps and doing it on my own, but they do not compare to having a professional tour guide who can provide hidden secrets and personal knowledge. For instance, in China our tour guide added several special activities that were not on our tour itinerary. We had dinner in a private home and even took a Tai Chi class that he arranged. I’ve had guides who arranged special entry into museums, mosques and many other attractions – allowing me to avoid long lines.

Using a local guide also adds an element of security, which is very important in today’s travel arena. They are your eyes and ears and will alert you to potential dangers. In Paris she pointed out pickpockets. In China our guide warned us about vendors who often give counterfeit money with change and even taught us how to recognize it. The benefits of using a local tour guide are endless.

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Packaged Tours – Booking packaged tours is another good way to save and get the most out of a trip. Air/hotel packages are often much cheaper than booking air and hotel separately. The more components you add to the package (rental car, excursions, show tickets) the better the value.

I also recommend booking packaged international tours that include air, hotel, tours and most meals. For instance, our recent 10-daytrip to China (Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai) included round-trip flights from LAX, in-country flights between Beijing and Shanghai, bus transportation, entry to museums, 4 star hotels, tours with English speaking guides, daily breakfasts and several dinners – all for only $1399 per person. Booking that trip a la carte could easily have cost $5000 per person. There was no stress involved because everything was planned for us. And we still had plenty of free time to explore on our own.

I have learned as a travel professional and frequent traveler that like most things that you purchase, you get what you pay for and there are really no giveaways. Travel vendors are in business to make money. Some prices are lower than others, but it just depends on when and where you go. To get the very best rates, you have to be able to travel ANY time. However, if you have specific dates, those deep discounts may not apply. The bottom line is, you have to do your homework to find the best rates for your travel dates and preferences. Happy traveling!

 

It’s a Family Affair

  • Watching the sun melt into the Caribbean Sea from the front of a cruise ship
  • Riding the gondola chair ride up to the top of the Isle of Capri
  • Driving golf carts on Catalina
  • Snorkeling in St. John
  • Climbing Dunns River Falls
  • Climbing the Great Wall of China

These are just a few of the experiences that our family has shared while traveling the world for the past 25 years. We began when our son Marcus was small and we’ve gone somewhere special every year since then. Some trips were domestic, others international, but all have allowed us to share some really good times.

Our first family trip was to the Bahamas when Marcus was one year old. When we arrived at the airport he was amazed at seeing so many people. That’s when we realized that his world really had only consisted of his baby sitter, a few relatives and us. So seeing hundreds of people walking down the concourse was quite an experience. He was elated and seemed to think that they’d all come to meet him. We knew then that he had the travel bug.

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Marcus has become a true citizen of the world and his experience has expanded his education far beyond what he was learning in school. We’ve always taken St. Augustine’s quote quite literally, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”.

When visiting the Island of Kiribati he saw children living in simple dwellings and playing with simple toys and realized that not all children were as fortunate as he was. While visiting the Acropolis he saw the Parthenon that he’d been studying in his world history class.

Much of our travel has been on cruise ships since cruising is a great way for families to travel together while enjoying many different activities – and there’s something onboard for every age group. So Marcus could play and go on scavenger hunts with other children while we enjoyed a little “grown folks” time. He also learned to meet and connect with other children from all over the world. On one of our early cruises our family was seated with a family from Sweden during dinner. They didn’t speak English and we certainly spoke no Swedish. But Marcus and the 2 children were able to connect because they all shared a love for ketchup. We’ve snorkeled in the Caribbean and one of our most memorable experiences was climbing up Dunns River Falls in Jamaica. Cruising also gave him exposure to fine dining and he learned to order multi-course meals at an early age. – although most of the time he preferred to eat chicken fingers & fries – and those were readily available too.

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Our most recent adventure was spending 10 days in China where we visited Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai. We were truly captivated by the culture, cuisine and history of that ancient country. One of the highlights of the trip was climbing the Great Wall of China together. I’ll be honest, Robert and I didn’t exactly climb all the way to the top, but Marcus and his GoPro did, so we still got some amazing photos.

lee family at great wall

As much as we’ve traveled, we’ve seldom seen other Black families. We see other races of people with their children in tow or in backpacks, and we always ask, ‘Where are our families?” Of course money is always a challenge, and the more children that a family has, the bigger that challenge becomes. But we cannot afford to deprive our children of experiencing a world outside of their own neighborhood.

When I was growing up my parents also had a love for travel – but not much money to finance that passion. So sometimes our family trips consisted of loading us 3 kids into the back of our station wagon with a lunch and driving up the coast. Even that was an adventure to our little minds. And we made some great memories.

Even if parents don’t have much money they can expose their children to historical sites and attractions, even in their own hometown. “Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children are roots and wings.” — Hodding Carter

 

 

 

Are You Fit to Travel?

Jerry Rice is one of the all-time greatest NFL wide receivers. In addition to his on-field excellence, he was known for his incredible off-season training regimen. One aspect that was always mentioned was how he ran hills near his northern California home. Many other NFL players even came to train with him in the off- season, hoping to tap into some of the greatness that he exhibited on the field. That greatness eventually led him to the Hall of Fame.

We don’t often associate physical conditioning with travel, but there is a definite need to be physically fit to handle the rigors of travel. This applies to much more than adventure travel, even luxury travel requires conditioning. For instance, some airports are so large that you can walk as much as half a mile from one terminal to another, or from your arrival gate to the baggage claim area. This can entail navigating inclines, ramps, steps, escalators or trams – all while pulling your luggage. And since everyone is in a hurry, it also requires being able to move fairly quickly. We have had that experience in airports all over the country and around the world. We’ve done some serious trekking around Lisbon, Barcelona, Dubai and Beijing – without ever leaving the airport. So working out and staying in shape is a necessary part of our lifestyle.

Travel requires good upper body strength. After all, you have to be able to pull and lift your luggage. Now that airlines charge baggage fees, people are packing as much as possible into their carry-on bags. That means that you have to be able to lift those bags over your head to cram them into the overhead bins. You gotta be strong.

You need to be strong enough to hoist your luggage onto tour buses and up onto airport and rental car shuttle buses. Sometimes the driver will help, but if he doesn’t, you’re on your own. You gotta be strong.

You need to be able to walk and sometimes even run to catch a bus or keep up with a guide. When we went to Athens we took a guided tour to the Acropolis. The guidebook said, “The Acropolis of Athens is an ancient citadel located on a high rocky outcrop above the city of Athens.” The operative word in the description is “high”. We had to climb a steep hill to get to the top. Since it is such a popular tourist destination there were literally thousands of other tourists there at the same time. So our guide rushed our group so that we could get ahead of the other groups and it was hot. That man almost walked us to death!

We had a similar experience in Santorini, Greece. We’d booked a walking tour of the town of Fira, so we expected a leisurely stroll around that picturesque little town – not. Our guide walked us at a surprisingly fast pace for a lady in her condition (she was pregnant). Fira is perched on the hillside above the caldera so there are lots of steps to negotiate and I think we hit all of them that day.

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Often these “travel workouts” can be unexpected. On a trip to Montego Bay we decided to zipline for the first time. I knew I’d have to exert some effort and was ready to do that. However, I didn’t know how much walking we’d have to do before reaching the first platform…..down several hundred uneven steps…through the rainforest. My quads were shot…talk about feeling the burn.

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Proper training requires proper equipment. Another aspect of travel fitness is having the right travel attire – especially footwear. You can always tell a seasoned traveler by looking at their feet. They wear shoes that can withstand the rigors of ancient cobblestones and uneven surfaces. Any city that has withstood hundreds of years has done so because it has very sturdy buildings and very hard walking surfaces. Those flip-flops and cute little kitten heels are no match for 500 year-old cobblestones. So do yourself a favor and wear comfortable, well-fitting shoes.

Our most recent challenge was last month when we climbed the Great Wall of China. I have several friends who’d been there and told me about climbing some steps then taking a ride on a gondola, so that’s what I expected to do. However, our guide took us to a section of the wall where there was no gondola, only steps. There were hundreds of uneven steps that went straight up. What a workout! If I hadn’t been in shape I’d have tapped out early in the climb. But it was an exhilarating experience and the view from the top was spectacular….well worth the effort.

lee family at great wall

Our travels have taught us to expect the unexpected. So we train 2-3 times each week so that we can continue to pursue our passion…travel.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

 

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“Do you know where you’re going to?

Do you like the things that life is showing you?

Where are you going to, do you know?”

These are the opening lyrics to the “Theme from Mahogany”, as sung by Diana Ross in 1975. Even though the song is 40 years old, the message is still relevant – especially when it comes to travel. There is no substitute for preparation before taking a trip. Whether you’re going around the corner or around the world, you should be prepared. If you are traveling locally you may only need to know about weather or traffic. But if you’re going farther, you’ll need to know much more.

Here are some things to consider before taking your next trip:

Climate/Weather-In order to pack appropriately it is good to know what the average temperature will be. If you’re traveling to a different hemisphere, you may even encounter a different season. So your summer wardrobe may not be sufficient if you’re going to South Africa or Australia in June. Even San Francisco, although it is in sunny California, can get quite chilly in the evening when the fog rolls in. As the famous quote says, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

Travel Documents -Will you need a passport? Some countries require travelers to have passport that will be valid at least 6 months after entry. Will you need a Visa? Some countries will allow you to apply for a Visa upon arrival at their airport; others require you to apply for it before you leave home. Be sure to allow enough time to get the necessary documents. There are agencies that can get rush documents for you, but they can be costly. We learned the hard way when we neglected to examine our son’s passport before a trip to Europe. We didn’t realize that it had expired until ~6 days before we were scheduled to leave. By the time we’d paid the rush fees and overnight shipping fees, we were out of several hundred dollars.

If you take a cruise that begins and ends at a U.S. port, passports are not required – but are highly recommended. If something unforeseen happens and you miss the ship or are detained in port for any reason, you’ll need proof of your U.S. citizenship.

Currency – If you’re planning to spend cash, you’ll need to have local currency. We prefer to get foreign currency from our bank since they do not charge fees. You can change money at the airport, since there are currency exchange kiosks in international terminals, but you will pay a fee. We have also exchanged money in other cities, but again there was a fee involved. Most major credit cards are widely accepted, but your credit card company may charge a foreign transaction fee. Be sure to notify your credit company of your travel dates so that they don’t block any transactions. If you live in New Jersey, and they see a charge to you card in Sri Lanka, they may block it because they suspect that it could be fraudulent.

Cuisine – Experiencing the local cuisine is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in another culture. But if your have dietary preferences or restrictions you’ll want to know what to expect. For example, the Serrano ham in Spain is some of the best ham in the world. But if you’re not a pork eater, you won’t have much to choose from at the tapas bars.

Cruising is a good option because it offers a wide variety of food choices – and they are all included in the cruise fare. Even the pickiest eaters can find something to please their palates.

Electricity– Voltage can vary depending on the country that you’re in. Many travelers to Europe have had difficulties with their electronics, because European and American power systems are run differently. Most of the world, including Europe, uses a 220 volt/50 hertz system. A handful of other countries, including the United States, have 110 volt/60 hertz electricity, which is believed to be safer. As a result, appliances in these nations are designed to connect to a specific type of power source, and using American devices in European outlets and vice versa can result in havoc.

Many nations also use different plugs, and a number of plug adapter kits are available for connecting to foreign plugs. However, use of these plugs without a transformer or voltage converter can result in fireworks. The voltage in Europe is twice that of the voltage in the United States, and while many electronics are designed to adapt to voltage changes, it is crucial to check. If the device is not capable of handling 220 volts of electricity, it will fail. In addition, some electrical devices cannot handle the lower 50 hertz cycle found in much of the world, and may experience difficulties.

Style of Dress– It is good to be familiar with local style of dress. Although western clothing style is widely acceptable, there can be certain restrictions. For example women may need to cover their heads in certain churches, temples or mosques. We’ve seen young ladies turned away in Vatican City when they tried to enter St. Peter’s Basilica while showing too much skin. I always carry a light pashmina that I can tuck in my bag, wear as a scarf or use to cover my head and shoulders. During a recent trip to Abu Dhabi I dressed modestly on the day that we planned to go to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque….but apparently it wasn’t modest enough and I was asked to wear an abiya into the mosque. Actually it made the experience even more meaningful. But I’ll admit, it’s not easy to survive that 100-degree desert heat while wearing a long black frock.

Men were required to wear long pants and sleeves, and were not allowed to show tattoos.

Travel Protection Insurance is always optional, but I recommend it highly. Many travelers refuse to purchase it, thinking that it’s just an upsell. But as the travel industry becomes more unstable and unpredictable, having insurance is a wise choice. In the case of lost luggage or a missed connection, it is the only chance to recoup lost money. Policies vary, so it is important to buy the one that fits your needs. A good travel agent can help you make the right choice. You may need “a cancel for any reason” policy. Or you may need medical coverage while in another country. This is especially true for adventure travelers. If you break a leg while skiing in the Alps and have to be lifted out by helicopter, you’re looking at thousands of dollars in medical bills. Even if you have insurance, you’ll have to pay at the time of treatment, then file a claim after your trip.

Travel can be one of life’s most rewarding (or frustrating) experiences. It all depends on being prepared. It is important to KNOW BEFORE YOU GO.