Worldwide Caution

Last night news channels went ablaze from the State Department’s travel alert.

The State Department has intel on a serious potential Al Qaeda threat. This is more than just the heightened terrorist chatter, typical for the end of Ramadan.

There was some news coverage about the Al Qaeda affiliated group in Yemen. This threat carries the weight of al-Asiri, the bombmaker responsible for the underwear bomber and others.

The State Department said this was just a precaution, “out of an abundance of caution”.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The alert expires August 31, 2013.
  • 21 US embassies will be closed tomorrow (Sunday, August 4), primarily in the Middle East. If and when they will reopen has not been addressed.
  • This threat is against Western interests, not just American.
  • The UK is also closing it’s embassy in Yemen and is urging all it’s citizens to leave that country.
  • Register your travel plans with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Through this program the State Department can keep you informed and assist in the case of an emergency.
  • Download the Smart Traveler App by the State Department for “frequently updated official country information, travel alerts, travel warnings, maps, U.S. embassy locations, and more”

Despite the focus on embassies after last year’s September 11th attack at the Benghazi embassy, it is important to remember mass transportation systems and landmarks are also favorites.

The State Department has really hit the media hard with this story. This is encouraging to me. Most people with an opinion on TV say that this alert will have the secondary benefit of scaring the terrorists, letting them know we are on to them. But I think the benefit of the entire public knowing (not just the die-hard fans of the State Department’s site) could mark a new day for how we handle threats.

I think most people don’t “need” to know the specifics but appreciate being in the loop. People will keep their eyes open, and if they see something they will not just chalk it up to their imagination but take it seriously.

As a side note: The fact that they made this alert public and gave so much air time and attention to it is a good sign. From where I sit, for every sentence of information they make public, they have at least 1,000 pages worth of information they are not disclosing. So in that regard, the more they say… makes me feel slightly more at ease.

I predict this open strategy will demonstrate that the general public can be an asset, and will facilitate a better relationship with (and approval towards) the intelligence community.

Have a wonderful weekend and be safe.

Related Sites:
State Department Site
Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
Smart Traveler App
CBS News report

Frequent Flying Genius

Next time you are on a plane and you get grumpy with the person sitting next to you who is hogging the arm rest, snoring or can’t stop showing you pictures of their great grand kids…

…consider you might be sitting next to a genius. Like Mr. Jason Lichtman.

Former frustrated frequent flyer, Lichtman struggled to get any sleep on board. And when he did manage to sleep, he’d undoubtedly miss the beverage service and awaken parched with no flight attendant in sight to help his poor dehydrated self.

Being a genius, Lichtman designed a mask so he could fall asleep in peace. Like any sleep mask worth your time, it blocked out light. On the strap around his head, you can store ear plugs.

But his truly extraordinary brain cells had a field day and introduced a whiteboard to the design. The whiteboard further blocks out light while allowing you to leave instructions for flight attendants. “Wake me up for beverage service”. And thus was born the Total Eclipse travel mask.

Total Eclipse flight mask whiteboard

For me, I have a few other uses in mind. For example…

-leave love notes to your fellow passengers: “Your hair looks really good today“.

-leave advice for your neighbor: “Sorry if I fall asleep on you. Just push me over, I’ll be fine. PS. I drool.

-and if you’re having a really bad day: “Don’t you dare disturb, unless we are going down.”

I also imagine it would be great fun to bring on a group trip, especially if you generously let someone borrow the mask without telling them you have the pen. The possibilities are endless!!

If you had one of these masks, what would you write?

Handicap Parking around the world – Part 2

After finishing Part 1 — on handicap parking in the US — I was a little concerned about what I might find in other corners of the world. But I think Europe has embarrassingly out-shined the US on this issue.

In my humble and online-research-based opinion, the US makes it far more difficult to travel between 50 “united” states than Europe does for it’s near 50 countries. Let’s ponder this for a moment…

USA: 1 national language

European Union: 23 official languages
(Not to mention there is an entire extra tier of beaurocrats to every decision-making process.)

Let’s figure this out.

In 1978, the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) agreed to grant the same parking privileges to people with disabilities (from any ECMT member country) as they offer their own national citizens. To put that into perspective, the US signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), requiring handicap parking, in 1990.

In 1997, the ECMT expanded it’s scope to include “Associated Countries”: Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the USA. This move was likely responsible for the ECMT’s name change to International Transport Forum (ITC) in 2007.

Today, there are over 50 “member countries” in the ITC–see the complete list here.

The only requirement to get these special privileges is to have an official badge displaying the international wheelchair symbol. The trick is, you still have to familiarize yourself with the specific privileges for each country. For example, Denmark and the UK require a parking disc (aka “clock”), in addition to the badge, to indicate parking time so that time limits can be enforced.

If you will be road-tripping in Europe, this concise pamphlet will give you a brief overview of handicap parking rules in each country.

handicap parking spot

And if all else fails and you get ticketed, just start yelling at them in a language they don’t speak — you are after all traveling. And, if you don’t know a different language, make one up! 🙂
The coolest person I know did that in a different but effectively similar situation, so it has my stamp of approval. 

Handicap Parking around the world – Part 1

After seeing handicap parking spaces in Italy, I became curious about how different countries handle the issue. I started my research in my own back yard. I thought I was informed about these policies in the US, but it turns out I had a  thing or two to learn.

Handicap Parking in the US:

1. People with a permanent disability or a chronic illness can get a blue placard or have the International Symbol of Access specially marked on their license plate.

2. Temporary disabilities (ie. from an injury/surgery) can get you a red placard.

3. Some major cities allow free parking at city parking meters and exempts time limits for disabled motorists.

  • California exempts both meter fees and time restrictions, currently. This is a major motivator for the abundant handicap placard fraud and is causing issues, to say the least. There is talk about ending meter fee exemptions like Washington DC and Philadelphia (and others) have already done.
  • Michigan has a two-tiered placard policy. Only the most severely disabled applicants receive fee exemptions (about 2% of applicants). The second tier does not receive this benefit.
  • For more info on these points, read this wonderful and informative article.

4. Your placard may or may not be valid in other US states

  • California requires out of state visitors to apply for a temporary placard (about a 2 week process). Also, Californians must apply for a 30-day travel placard if they plan to use handicap parking in other states. Read it here.
  • New York City caused a lot of controversy in cases of out-of-state visitors being denied placard privileges. Apparently NYC only recognizes New York and New York City placards. I went to NYC’s site  and it mentioned nothing about out-of-state placards being invalid. It did however say that the New York state placard is “valid in all other states and Canadian provinces”. The New York DMV site also talked around if other states’ placards are valid and this time said that the NY state placard is valid “in most other states”.
  • Other state DMVs also claim their placards are valid in every US state. But refer to the bullet on California law…

It’s really a mess. I think the best thing to do is visit the DMV site of whichever state you plan to visit. And keep in mind that if it’s hard for you to understand while doing all this research; I’m positive there will be more than one cop who isn’t informed. So print the webpage that states your rights in that state or the name of the person you talked to at their DMV. Better safe than sorry.

Alabama handicap placardCalifornia handicap placardIllinois handicap placardWisconsin handicap placard

Pack like a Pro – best kept secrets

There are times you get to wherever you’re going and realize I forgot to pack ___!!! And there are times you realize Thank goodness I packed this ___!!!

hand sanitizerMost often its the former. But this trip, I am so grateful for my hand sanitizer and it’s good friend: tissues. You never know when you will get to a bathroom with no TP and no soap (already happened to me twice this trip!). When you are spending so much time on public transit, you’re going to want to eat at some point and you will thank yourself for bringing some Purell. I promise.

There are plenty of other items that merit a spot on your packing list. I will bypass the usuals like ID, phone, chargers, etc and just give you an idea of the type of things you might need that you might not have thought to bring.  So here we go!

  • Hand Sanitizer & Pack of tissues
  • Journal with waterproof pen  – to write memories or directions, phone numbers, etc.  It’s always good to have.
  • Ziploc bags – whether you have a wet towel, dirty laundry, food storage or sea shells you want to take home, you will find a reason to need a ziploc bag.
  • Travel Clothes line – if you plan to wash clothes, you might not have the luxury of a dryer. If you anticipate this sort of situation, best come prepared to air-dry.
  • Sewing Kit / Safety pins – You never know when a bag will rip or your pants will split. And if you need to pop a blister-you’re all set!
  • Earplugs/eyecover – if you are a light sleeper, do yourself this favor.
  • Copy of passport in email!!! – This one is really really good. If you are so unfortunate to lose or have your passport stolen, having this copy could be a life saver. And if you simply print a copy and keep it in your wallet–the theif probably won’t leave that behind for you. I’ve done this for years and it’s so helpful, even for just booking tickets.
  • Luggage Locks – These need to be TSA approved so they can open your bags without opening the lock. Its also nice to have a lock in case you need to put your stuff in a storage locker, etc, anytime you are traveling.
  • Make sure you don’t find yourself here. My pink bow wont be so funny.

    A recognizable strap for your luggage – I’ve been that person who feels so dumb when they walk off with the wrong luggage or waits for twenty minutes as their bag circles them repeatedly. Now I have a bright pink bow on my bags, and baggage claim is so much easier!

  • Cloth bag – just a small tote that you can go grocery shopping with. Some places make you pay for bags, and if you plan to do a lot of shopping, it’s nice to have a sturdy bag to use. Also, you can use it as your “personal item” on the flight home, in case you return with more stuff you started with.
  • Feminine Products – I’ll leave this one to this blogger who says it best: “these are often harder to find than they should be (especially with language barriers), so it’s a good idea to bring at least a month’s supply. Even if you don’t need them, someone else will, and having them will get you lots of good travel karma.”
  • Tweezers/Nail clippers – hang nails and splinters can ruin your day. I can’t travel without these. And if you need to cut a string for your sewing kit, nail clipper are a TSA friendly option.

For this last one, I went to the web to see what people think. To bring a knife or not to bring a knife? And this is what I saw:

Contrary to every man’s instinct, a knife is very rarely useful. – www.wordtravels.com

Seriously. Uncorking a wine bottle, adding an extra hole in your belt, getting a splinter out of your finger, this is the tool of choice. Mock if you like, but mine’s been useful more times than I can count, and so it tops the list. – www.noaura.com

I’ve never traveled with a knife, but if your man instincts tell you otherwise, I say go for it!

And there you have it! Did I miss anything? Leave a comment below or shoot me an email.

Related articles:
www.wordtravels.com/forum/discussion/1506
www.noaura.com/travellist
www.eaglecreek.com/travel-tips-packing-lists
www.onebag.com/checklist.html

Fleet of unFriendly Fees for Flying

On this trip, I encountered a few fees at the airport that I didn’t expect. I hope my experience will help you avoid them!!

FEE 1 – Overweight luggage.

When we were packing for our trip, we pulled out the scale and awkwardly tried to balance the suitcase on it. It came in at healthy 50.4lbs. When we got to the airport, they weighed it and it was 56lbs.

It was around 2009-2010 that airlines started allowing only one checked bag. There is typically a weight limit of 50 lbs, as was the case with us.

The airline representative said that the extra 6 lbs would cost us $150!! You are not allowed to re-pack at the counter so the Rep said we had only until she could input our information in the computer to print out our boarding passes. We quickly took out shoes and clothes and put them into my carry on bag. Just in time we got down to 50.6 lbs. We looked at the Rep with wide eyes; she said “that’ll do” and we could breathe again.

I did know about this fee I’d just never hear about how much it would be. I don’t think its easy information to find when booking a flight. Good thing you have me to tell you these things 😉

I guess being overweight really is bad for the economy.

FEE 2 – Unsigned Passport

Before landing in Germany, the crew reminded everyone to sign their passports. If you go to customs with an unsigned passport, they will fine you €2,000 (about $2,600) which you must pay on the spot. If you cannot pay, they will deport you on the next flight. After traveling for almost 12 hours, returning the way I came sounded like the stuff of nightmares!!

I hope my experience will help you with your financial fate while flying! Have

Beware Of Children

When preparing for a trip to Italy (okay, Europe in general but Italy especially), many people will probably ask you “Aren’t you afraid to travel there?” or “Did you know my friend had their wallet/purse stolen?” or “Do you have one of those pouches you wear under your shirt to hold your money?”

Theft is a big problem from being pick-pocketed, without noticing, to being mugged, very noticeably. You have to look out for Gypsies who see tourists as easy targets. The best thing you can do is present yourself like the experienced traveler you wish you were. There are small things you can do that will go a long way, for example:

  1. ALWAYS be touching your belongings. If you have a backpack and are just sitting somewhere, hold it between your feet or keep a hand on it.
  2. Secure your belongings. Hold your purse close to your body or use a cross-the-body purse/bag. Don’t just hold it—secure it! Either with a strap or held firmly. Remember straps can be cut. Someone can cut your purse right off you! So keep control of not just the strap but the body of the purse/bag itself!
  3. Don’t keep your money all in one place so you’ll always have some if you get pick-pocketed. AND people may watch where you pull your money from when you buy, say, a gelato. Then they will know exactly where you keep your money and how they can extract it from you.
  4. Stay calm when you are lost and hiding your confusion. Nothing says Pick Me! like a lost and confused tourist.
  5. Beware of children. There are gypsy children that go up to people asking for money, selling something, or playing instruments for money…DON’T LET YOUR GUARD DOWN! This is just a distraction to take your money or an Intel mission to find out where you keep your money so they can take it from you later.

What all these tips boil down to…Be Aware Of Your Surroundings. You would be surprised what tourists let people get away with.

This is nothing you haven’t heard before or couldn’t figure out for yourself. But something happened the other day that REALLY surprised me. I COULD NOT BELIEVE THIS HAPPENED:

 

 

And with that, I’ll take a page out of Hollywood’s book, and take my leave. Nothing like a good cliff hanger 😉 I’ll tell you all about the craziness in tomorrow’s post! Stay tuned…

Conquering jet lag

I have the happiest of news!! I am cured of jet lag!!

Today was the 1st day that I slept through the night. This is surely my biggest accomplishment so far! The joy I’m feeling right now is a little ridiculous.

I remember learning in a biology class at college about circadian rhythms (for example, it takes 3 months for a newborn to get a regular sleep cycle) and we discussed jet lag. Apparently, it takes one day to adjust to a time change of 2 hours. We had a change of 9 hours on this trip so it should take us 5 days and…this is day 7 I believe.

The equation didn’t account for mosquitoes.

This trip I’ve discovered a few gems in terms of adjusting. So here we go:

TIPS TO CONQUER JET LAG

  1. Vitamin B12
    When you are absolutely exhausted at 2pm, take vitamin B12!! This worked wonders for me! It boosts your energy a bit without a crash. Some medications, like Prilosec, interfere with how your body absorbs B12 so taking a suppliment can boost your energy! Learn more here.
  2. Exercise
    Again, don’t be tempted by an afternoon nap! When you get tired, go get some exercise. Earlier this week I went on a run with one of the friendly locals and when I came back, I was ready for anything, even a night on the town!
  3. Mosquito net
    I didn’t do this but the mosquitoes buzzing in my ear and keeping me up all itchy—there’s no way to get a good night’s sleep. I had to flick my hair and slap my arm and stay half awake all night to try to keep the mosquito’s away. This small anxiety kept me up even though I tried to not let it bother me. A mosquito net would have given me the piece of mind to sleep peacefully. Last night we used a mosquito repellant and that may be the reason why we finally could sleep!
  4. Melatonin
    I didn’t try this either but, I imagine this supplement would also help if your trouble is getting to sleep/staying asleep. Considering how well Vitamin B12 worked this time, I’d be up to try it in the future.

 In Italian (or maybe Sicilian) “jet lag” is literally translated in to “confused schedule” (“fuso orario”). Or that’s what it sounds like to me and I’m going with it until someone corrects me. It seems an apt name.

That’s all I’ve got for you today! Enjoy being well adjusted to your time zone! Ciao!

Can you get the phone?

We had some strong winds (“scirocco”) and it took down our Internet service. It was gone for 2 days which is why I’m late in giving you an update! I didn’t abandon you!! In fact I’ve been worried about writing here as soon as I could!
I guess that makes this a good time to talk about phone/Internet service…

UNLOCKING YOUR PHONE
Europe has a completely different system than in the US. Phones need to be unlocked by your carrier (AT&T for example). The reason is…carriers give you phones at a discounted price when you sign a contract with them. This is so they can gain back the discounted amount over the next two years. Europe doesn’t have the same carriers, so to use their carriers you must “unlock” your phone. Once it’s unlocked, you choose whichever carrier you like, replace your current SIM card with the new, and voila! Remember to save all your contacts either onto your phone or in the iCloud because all contacts on your SIM card will be lost. (They should return if you go back to using your old SIM card)

Most carriers will unlock your phone for you once your contract is up. AT&T does this for free: submit a request online and it takes 5-7 days for them to unlock it for you. You can have your phone unlocked at a phone store in whatever country you are visiting, but if it is not an official representative of your carrier, they can damage your phone–it may be worth it for you, but there is some risk involved. So make sure you trust the person you are handing your phone to!

INTERNET

Wind internet key

This may have been intuitive to everyone else, but it really surprised me! You can buy an Internet Key from a European phone carrier (ie. Wind, Vodafone, etc). This key looks exactly like a thumb drive that you plug into the USB port of your computer-it then gives you internet access.
The Cost:

  • The key = around 30-40 euros
  • The service = you pick how  much data you want. A typical phone plan in the US might be 2GB. Here you can choose from a variety of plans and it’s best to look at the specials. 9GB was about 15 euros.

The thing that really surprised me was that the key has a SIM card and you can take that card and put it into a phone and make calls!! It kinda blew my mind. Of course, making calls this way, you wouldn’t have a phone number so no one could call you. But that might not be such a bad thing!

PHONE
Here, its best to shop around for a phone. By that I mean, you should look at the deals different carriers have at the time. Also consider the people you will be calling and what carriers they have—some carriers might have a discounted rate when you call/text a person using the same service. Then you have to purchase the amount of money you’d like to put on your phone. Once that money runs out, you go to a Tabbacery and “recharge”.

A FREE LESSON
We bought a phone, SIM card and put money on our phone. (To get all this we had to provide our passport!) We left the store thinking we would have service that night….3 days later we still don’t have service. It turns out they gave us a faulty SIM card and we have to go back to get a new one. No “Sorry for the inconvenience” or anything! And we have to drive an hour to go back to that store!!

Welcome to Italy, no?

Air models

In the US, you can count on disability regulations to be clear and enforced. Of course, at times you may encounter situations where these regulations aren’t being met, but offenders will be accountable.

If you travel, you’ll likely encounter places with less comprehensive, less clear and less enforced rules. So when it comes to air travel, the airline you pick can make all the difference in your experience.

Two of Europe’s most popular, economical carriers are EasyJet and Ryanair. When I flew with these two, I’m pretty sure everyone felt a little inconvenienced. For one, you can only bring a carry-on, all checked bags cost a fee. Also, you always enter and exit the plane from the tarmac, using those narrow steep stairs. For someone who uses a wheelchair, these restrictions can be…well, too restricting to travel at all! And that is exactly the case!

In 2010, EasyJet was singled out for not allowing power chairs over 60 kg (without battery) to be transported. This is not the “official” rule, but it’s the rule that was in practice. But even so, they handle these chairs so poorly, they are often damaged (sometimes severely or to the point they must be replaced). And on top of that, passengers needing to use oxygen are charged a  £100 “tax on breathing”. Here’s just a small snippet of the article on the Trailblazer group’s research:

More than half of the 100 young disabled people surveyed for the report said that travelling by plane was so inaccessible that they were unlikely to choose it as an option, while many of those who had chosen to fly revealed experiences of discrimination.

Several travellers said they had landed in a foreign country to find their wheelchair had been broken by careless handling, while others said toilets on planes were so inaccessible that they were unable to use them, leaving one passenger unable to go for 11 hours.

This was almost 3 years ago, but it’s hard to tell if they’ve made any improvements. Afterall, it seems their “official” rules mean nothing.

You can read about an incident that occurred several years before this article with Ryanair. You should read the story in full for all the disturbing–and honestly unbelievable–details. Here’s just a few of those details:

The author, after enduring several months of chemotherapy for cancer in their spine, was traveling with their parents: 76 year old father with cerebral palsy and “minuscule and frail” mother. The mother was the only one able to carry any of their many bags of medical equipment.

  • The father was denied access to an accessible bathroom and had to wait an hour to for the hoist to be summoned so he could disembark the plane.
  • They were harassed by an immigration official for moving to slowly.
  • Their prepaid transportation didn’t show up at the airport, and  on the return trip to the airport, the transportation wasn’t accessible.
  • The airport wheelchair pusher abandoned them before customs because “this is as far as I am expected to take you”

Now this experience was quite a few years ago (under 10) but I think it illustrates the history of this sort of sentiment. You don’t need a specific law to say, push all passengers to their destination or be patient with mobility-challenged passengers. You need respect and decency towards the disabled to do those things. So even though this account is in the past, it isn’t nearly far enough in the past!

These errors continue to happen. Even in the US these things happen (remember how the TSA agent ruined a 3 year old girl in a wheelchair’s entire trip?). But I think we hold each other to a higher standard than other parts of the world.

I don’t mean to bash Europe. Rather, I intend to single out airlines who should step up to the level of their peers. In fact, I think Europe has some fantastic carriers! British Airways has this great policy: “You can bring an unlimited number of wheelchairs or mobility aids in addition to your free baggage allowance.” They also have a wonderful site to answer all sorts of questions for disabled travelers in a clear and easy way.

BA isn’t the only good carrier out there either. I just think they are one of the examples other airlines should aspire to–not only airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair, but even airlines in the States!

The question is, how do we get airlines hold themselves to a higher standard?

Note: Since the above Ryanair story, this new legislation has been passed (in 2008)