Celebrate Valentine’s Day – How do I Love Thee?

woman in red coat behind metal letters spelling LOVE with locks attached to the mesh
The Machine Shop complex in Sault Ste Marie has turned industrial buildings into a dining and event destination. And the recent addition of a love lock fence already has couples locking their hearts forever.

The North American version of Valentine’s Day has become very commercial – chocolates, flowers, expensive cards. Many other countries have followed suit and are doing the same things. But there are love traditions around the world that have withstood the onslaught of Hallmark and Hershey’s.

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Travel Tips Part I – Booking

Part 1: Booking

Once upon a time, booking a holiday was easy. You visited your friendly travel agent, bought some traveler’s cheques, and packed the family suitcase. Then off you went.

Map of the world, compass and old suitcase with labels
Where in the world are you going and what do you need to know to get there. It used to be easy. I love this picture from Stux; it says it all.

And then there’s today! There are so many more considerations when trip planning – booking the trip, accommodation options, luggage, smart phone use, credit cards. It can be a mine field. Let’s start with booking.

Booking Travel

With so many travel booking sites, one might think getting a great deal on a flight is easy. But before you book that cheap fare, here are some things to consider:

  1. Wow! You found some really low prices for your flight. Check the fine print. What’s included and what isn’t. For example, can you select your seat in advance? You might have to accept a middle seat at the back near the toilet if the flight is full. That’s because low fares often don’t allow you to choose your seat without a charge. You may be able to change seats at the airport but by then, you may find the flight is full and there’s nothing better available.
  2. Always check the airline website. Many airlines these days offer the same very low prices on their sites. Note however, that these lowest rates on both booking sites and airline sites come with a codicil. The reservation is set in stone, which means that if something comes up, you cannot change anything. If you need to change the date, you basically have to start over.
  3. Super low prices will probably not include checked luggage, which can cost as much as $100 per bag, depending on the flight. On some budget airlines, they even charge for hand luggage. Check the fine print. You may find it’s cheaper to pay for the next step up ticket and have a free checked bag each way.
  4. Some airlines offer a step up from the lowest fare with the possibility of making changes ‘for a fee’. That fee can be substantial because it is usually a fixed fee of about $300 plus the fare difference at that moment in time. When my friend tried to do this in order to remain an extra week overseas, she found it was less expensive to book a cheap site’s round trip ticket (and ditch the return half), than to pay for the ‘for a fee’ change.
  5. There can be perks to booking with the airline rather than with a booking site. For example, I recently made a booking to LAX only to discover two hours later that I needed to fly to San Francisco instead. As do many other airlines, Air Canada offers a 24-hour change-your-mind policy. I was able to cancel and make a new booking without penalty. Had I reserved on a booking site, I would not have been able to make the change.
  6. Finally, it may seem old fashioned, but I still frequently work with a travel consultant, Elaine Silver at Joy of Travel, who seems able to find deals it would take me hours to find myself. “That’s because I work with travel suppliers all the time, so they go the extra step to be of service,” she explains. “When you call, it’s just for that one ticket so they won’t necessarily be as accommodating.” It can be worth building a relationship with a human being who can help when things go wrong.

Booking Accommodation

Finding a place to stay and booking it seems easy enough online, and the deals can be terrific.

man working on a laptop with exclamation marks as his thoughts

If you are quite certain of dates and locations, go ahead and book. But take note of the following:

  1. Did you know that many online bookings are not changeable or refundable? Sites like Expedia have both options on their site; others offer no cancellations. Check before you book. One is never sure what might come up. For example, when a recent flight was delayed 2.5 hours leaving Canada, I knew I would miss my connection in Zurich, and not arrive until one day later. Fortunately, I had booked directly with the hotel (difference in price: $18 per night). I was able to cancel the first night in the hotel and check in the next day when I arrived, saving myself $140.
  2. Do your homework. Where is that cheap hotel?  It may seem like a great deal, but is the hotel in a convenient location? On a trip to Rome, I found a great deal on a hotel within a few kilometres of the city (a half hour at most on a bus, I thought). Unfortunately, there was no bus in the area. My taxi bills were more than the savings in hotel charges.
  3. Location becomes even more important where safety is concerned. Many years ago, in Teheran, I was very stressed because every time I left my hotel, men would actually try to touch me as they passed, even though I was walking with my husband. Two days later, we discovered why – we were in the red light district! The hotel was cheap but I suspect they wondered why we spent the whole night there! The curious thing was that it was recommended by a single woman friend!
  4. Options like Air B & B have created great alternatives, especially for family travelers or those planning to stay for a long time. The cost is lower and if there is a kitchen, you can save money on restaurant meals. Here again, make sure you do some research on location. In Sliema, Malta we stayed in an apartment building which seemed to be full of shift workers. They would come and go in the middle of the night, letting the building door slam, stomping around above us, and talking loudly in the halls. To make things worse, the apartment was at the top of a steep hill – a long walk at the end of the day. One way to avoid these problems is to carefully read the reviews of others who have stayed there.
  5. On Air B & B, take note of the ‘rules’ for the rental. For example, the owner of our apartment in Malta stated (and I missed this) that the 2-bedroom apartment was intended for more than 2 people, and if only 2 people were renting, they were supposed to use only one bedroom. This seems a ridiculous rule to most sane people. Had my friend and I not required two bedrooms, we would have rented a one-bedroom unit for much less money. The owner’s concern was the use of electricity in two rooms.  I point this out as it is the sort of silly requirement you are may find under the ‘rules’. Check them out in advance.

More tips on luggage, smart phones, and more to come. Stay tuned.

Tips to Escape Winter

Sea and palm trees along the sea walk Escape Winter in Calabria
The Lungomare or sea walk beside the ocean. Even on a cool day, it feels tropical and exotic.

As I slogged through the snow and slid my way across the icy sidewalk last winter, I vowed I would escape the cold next year. But where to go?

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Travel Tips Part II – Luggage

old fashioned suitcase in someone's hand

Once upon a time, booking a holiday was easy. You visited your friendly travel agent, bought some traveler’s cheques, and packed the family suitcase. Then off you went.

The family suitcases were probably large and a porter would have carried them to the check-in counter. Today, most people wheel their own luggage. And the days of two big bags and a generous weight allowance per flight are long gone. Wash and wear clothing makes packing simpler and lighter. So what luggage should you buy?

On a recent trip to Lecce, Italy, it seemed silly to get a taxi for the short walk to the train station. My friend happily pushed her large, four-wheeled case, while I lugged my old, heavy, 2-wheeled bag – lugged being the operative word! Guess who arrived at the station with sore shoulders? That was when I decided it was time for a new suitcase!

What suitcase to buy?

lots of suitcases on airport luggage carrier

Review websites tell you to buy luggage to fit the mode of travel, but I can’t afford to buy a different case for cruises, airline travel, and car trips. I need a versatile piece of luggage that fits all my travel needs.

Hard or soft sided

I looked at both. There’s no doubt that hard sided cases seem more secure, but a couple of thoughts immediately occur. Most of these open in half, like a clamshell. This means you can’t easily open the case on a standard luggage rack in a hotel room. And if you’re like me and need to stuff in just one more jacket, a hard-sided case is unforgiving. It will simply not zip up (or it will, to the ultimate detriment of the zipper). And some of these are heavier than their soft-sided alternatives.

Soft sided luggage will make room for that jacket (heck I’ve been known to sit on my case to compress everything!). But those zippers will only stand so much pressure! And soft sides are more prone to wear and tear (or thieves with sharp knives).



Here’s what Consumer’s Reports says about zippers. I can’t do better than quote them: A lot can go wrong with a zipper. If it breaks while you’re traveling, you might have to toss out the bag. Zippers come in two types: chain and coil. A chain zipper has two sets of interlocking teeth, usually made of metal. It’s better and stronger than a coil zipper, which slides on two parallel coils usually made of polyester. Chain zippers are much more difficult to break into than coil zippers, which can be pulled apart with a ballpoint pen and reclosed without a trace of wrongdoing. Zippers can be an indication of the overall quality of the bag. A YKK zipper is widely believed in the industry to be the most reliable zipper on the market.


wheels at the bottom of a suitacse
Travelpro’s Crew luggage has eight durable wheels.

There are wheels and wheels. Before you buy, try rolling the bag around; do the wheels roll smoothly? Do they wobble? Try gently moving them – are they firmly in place? Are they solid or flimsy? Think luggage handlers tossing this bag into the hold – are these delicate little wheels going to snap off?

I take it a step further. I want to know how those wheels will perform when there’s weight in the suitcase. I obviously can’t pack the bag in the store, so I find a couple of smaller bags and put them inside the larger bag. Now how do those wheels move? If there’s any hint of sticking, find another case.

Two or four wheels?

How many wheels do you need? Pieces with two wheels require lugging, but the upside is that the wheels are recessed, so less likely to get damaged by luggage handlers. And if your bag is a carry-on, the wheels aren’t taking two inches of your allotted length. Finally, you can stand a 2-wheeled bag up anywhere. It won’t roll away.

Four-wheeled bags require very little effort to push/pull. But because they usually spin 365 degrees, you can have steering issues if they aren’t very full (never an issue with me!). Most importantly, they won’t stand still if you’re on even the smallest incline. Why don’t luggage makers add a small brake? Emery boards tucked just under the wheels on the down slope will usually stop the bag from rolling.

Size and weight

hands packing a blue suitcase with colourful clothes and sunglasses

It’s tempting to select the largest bag possible. After all, one can never have too many clothes, just in case! Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Remember that in some situations (like my cool Air B & B in Soverato, Italy), you might need to walk up a couple of flights of stairs. Some charming hotels (and I’ve found a few in my travels) may not have an elevator. Are you up to lugging a really big suitcase?

More importantly, airlines place restrictions on luggage. Always check weight and size limits with your airline. These are not consistent across carriers.

Some carriers actually have suitcase size restrictions even on checked bags, and all have weight restrictions. The overweight penalties are substantial. Remember that a large piece of luggage can weigh as much as 8.5 – 13 pounds (3.9 – 5.9 kg) before you even pack a swimsuit. Who wants to carry suitcase weight? I’d rather use my weight allowance for clothes.

Airlines are getting stricter

For carry-on luggage, size is critical. After many years carrying my trusty TravelPro on board, I was recently confronted by an airline official who pointed out that it’s now too large. When did the size restrictions change? She didn’t make me pay (bless her!) but suggested I might get dinged another time. Airlines are getting super finicky about carry-ons, especially as most now charge for checked bags, resulting in more and more passengers trying to avoid this fee by using carry-ons.

I did a quick check and nearly all the major airlines accept carry-on luggage that is 22” by 14” by 9”. Several still limit the weight of carry-ons, though others, like Air Canada, have eliminated a weight restriction on these. My bag was actually about the right size but it was so over-stuffed, and the hiking boots scrunched into the top zip pocket added so much height, that I was well over 9”. So bear this in mind when packing a carry-on with generous outside pockets.

Smart luggage

Let’s get technical. If you really want to get spendy, you can buy a suitcase that will weigh itself, and if it gets lost, can tell you exactly where it is, and unlocks with your fingerprint. Or you can buy a lock that will do this. Note that all locks have to be TSA-compliant, ie. accessible with a universal master key if an agent has to physically inspect the contents of the suitcase. Since I rarely have occasion to carry the crown jewels, all this technology seems a little over the top. But if you love gadgetry, this may be your thing.  


Check reviews for luggage. There are a few brands that get consistently great reviews. My favourite brand is TravelPro, simply because I happened to buy one years ago and found it was sturdy, reliable and easy to handle. Good brands may cost a little more but they usually offer a lifetime warranty so if the zipper breaks or the material frays, it’s covered. Some cover airline manhandling damage on some of their luggage lines but not others. As far as I know, only Briggs and Riley offers free repair no matter what the cause of the damage.

10 Tips to Maximize Your Cruise Experience

Tips for the Cruise Neophyte

The Queen Mary, one of the world’s most elegant ships in her time.

Once upon a time, cruising was strictly for the wealthy. Indeed, the word cruise still evokes images of elegantly dressed society types, lounging, cocktails in hand, while a palm court orchestra plays in the chandelier-hung salon. Think Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember.

It’s still a self-indulgent means of travel, but cruising has become much more affordable. Nonetheless, you are still putting down a chunk of cash for the trip. Here’s how to get the most for your money. Continue reading