Thursday, May 24, 2012

Travel Tips from the Old AF Sarge

The Old AF Sarge in Vatican City
Tip 1. When travel is suggested. Run and hide. Go to your mental "happy place" and hope no one notices that physically and spiritually, you have "left the building".

As you may gather, I ain't much for traveling. Though I do enjoy the destination, I no longer enjoy the passage to said destination as much as I used to. But in all seriousness, there are some tips I'd like to convey to you regarding travel.

But first, a tangent, an aside if you will. "Your Honor, may I approach the bench?" As it were.

When our oldest daughter (the Nuke) let me know, sometime in the Fall of 2011, that she and my other offspring were considering surprising the Missus with a trip to Italy, I felt a certain amount of trepidation. Me, travel. Why? Well, obviously the Missus has always wanted to visit Italy. So the Nuke informed me that this was going to happen. I did not have a vote. So I'd better get with the program, say "Yes, Ma'am" and drive on.

When the Nuke is annoyed with me, which is rather often, she is fond of reminding me that she, by an act of Congress and the Grace of God, is a Lieutenant in the United States Navy. Whereas I, her father, am simply an old retired Air Force Master Sergeant. Therefore she, outranks me. Typically I will humor her and go along. I think she does realize that it's all an act. After all, I spent 24 years outwitting my superiors in rank. Everyone knows that we enlisted are a wily bunch. Ever ready to let the officers think that they are in charge, when in reality, if we sergeants decide that something is not gonna happen, odds are, it ain't gonna happen. Unless the Skipper/Old Man/C.O. decides that "BY GOD YOU WILL DO THIS RIGHT NOW!"

Now in our happy little family group, it is has always been accepted that the Missus IS the Skipper. She is The One in Charge. So when the Nuke threatened me with telling the Missus (aka the Skipper) that I was being, shall we say, less than cooperative, I decided to toe the line and "get with the program".

The first thing discussed was whether we would like to be on our own, or be part of a guided tour. As I knew diddly squat about Italy (other than where it is, that they have great food and that they speak Italian) I figured that a guided tour would be the best bet.

I do not regret that choice. We met a really nice bunch of people and we learned far more about Italy than we would have on our own. So that's my first real tip, unless you're very familiar with where you're going, go with a guided tour. Select a reputable tour company. If it's a good company, the tour guides will literally take care of everything. Transportation around the countryside is provided, they show you around and (at least in our case) took very seriously their mission to show us a good time. They also know some of the best places to eat. (Very important in Italy. Did I mention how much I loved the food?)

I think my second tip would be to have some of the local currency on hand upon arrival. We blew this one. When we arrived at the airport in Rome, I considered changing some dollars into (shudder) Euros. (I shudder because I'm kind of old school. I miss the Deutschmark, the Lira and the franc. Euros look and feel like Monopoly money.) The representative of our tour company suggested that the hotel might have a better exchange rate than the airport. Better for the hotel for sure, not better for us!

Our actual tour guide, when told this story, said he'd let his bosses know that the greeters at the airport were handing out bad info. While the rate at the airport was not great, it was way better than what we could get at the hotel.

So have some local currency in hand. Another suggestion from one of our group was to have a debit card of the Visa/Master Card variety. These work nicely in ATMs. Make sure it has lots of cash available. Italy is expensive! A story our tour guide related to us explained why so many things in Italy were so expensive.

Apparently prior to the conversion from the old currencies to the Euro, each country had to agree how much of their old "coin of the realm" would convert to one Euro. Italian politicians, being even less scrupulous than our own politicians, found a way to screw their constituents and, no doubt, make a little money on the side. While I don't remember the exact numbers it was something along the lines that 1000 lira should have made one Euro. What happened is that 2000 lira wound up converting to one Euro. So something which previously had cost a certain amount, now cost double, using Euros. I'm sure it's more complex than that, but our tour guide indicated that there was a certain amount of "funny business" involved with the conversion.  And no one was happy, except of course the politicians and the Eurocrats.

So really, those are my big tips: do a guided tour and bring some local dough with you.

Another thing about guided tours. Generally there is a "stock", kind of "bare bones" tour. This is fairly inexpensive on the surface. But you're also stuck on your own most of the day. For our tour there was only one "standard" activity a day. Everything else was optional. The optional stuff ran 30 to 40 Euro, each. While this seems kind of expensive (and it is), it beats the alternative. Some friends of ours opted out of most of the optional stuff. When those of us on one of the optional dinners had a great time at about 80 Euro per couple, this other couple went to what they thought was a "nice" restaurant. They were not impressed with the food, and it cost them 150 Euro for their dinner!

So sign up for those optional parts of the tour. Well worth it if you're unfamiliar with the place you're visiting Especially if one does not speak the local lingo. It's funny how when you want to complain about something, the person you want to complain to has suddenly lost all knowledge of English.

Pick Pockets, Gypsies and Street Vendors
While we did not run into any pickpockets, they are there. Especially in crowded tourist venues. Take precautions as they are clever bastards.

Gypsies we saw everywhere. They tend to be older women who, shall we say, "dress down" for to scam the tourists. You can recognize them by their shawls, their ragged clothing, their paper cups presented for you to fill with money and their very expensive running shoes. Yup, I kid you not. Every one I saw was wearing just the right kind of footwear to run from the police. Again, a hat tip to our tour guide for pointing that out. He specifically told us to "check out their shoes", beggars apparently CAN be choosers when it comes to footwear.

Street vendors are ubiquitous. None of them (to my discerning eye) appeared to be Italian. All were from regions that are not known for having, shall we say, booming economies. What these vendors are doing is illegal. What they are selling is generally either counterfeit or pretty useless crap. If you buy it, beware. If counterfeit items are detected going through US customs, they are confiscated and destroyed. You get nothing in return if this happens. So again, buyer beware.

Anyway, those are my travel tips, such as they are. Oh, one last thing get something for the plane which will help prevent catching someone else's cold/flu/whatever. Vitamin C. In massive quantities so I'm told. Commercial aircraft are flying Petri dishes. If someone on board has something icky, they will share it. I know. I'm still suffering with the "cold from hell".

Bon voyage!

How could I forget to mention the most important aspect of being with a guided tour? Guided tours go to the FRONT OF THE LINE. No standing with the masses, waiting one's turn. Nope, guided tours scoot right up to the entrance and go straight in. Bear that in mind when planning your trips. Just thought I'd pass that along.


  1. Just booked my trip to Rome next year.
    1. No beggars in running shoes
    2. Bring Euros
    3. Vitamin C- overmedicate

    Keep the tips coming

  2. Excellent info Sarge! I had a Romany type try to scam me for cash in a Paris railway station. She tried the `nearly in tears` routine and had a baby with her which she sort of waved under my nose. I spotted the Nike's, so I made out that I thought she wanted to sell me the baby. I said I'd by it and commenced vigorous negotiations. She declared the proceedings null and void just as her male `minder` in a £250 suit mysteriously appeared out of his O.P. and ushered her away, with me shouting, "OK, 75 Euros for the kid, my final offer". These people are professional beggars and seem to bring their kids up in the profession. PS. I always give to charities for the homeless.

    1. Nice touch HD. Just wonderin' though, what would you have done with the kid had she accepted your offer? I don't really picture you as a Fagin-type, Oliver Twist and all that. But 75 Euro? Not a bad offer.

  3. Also, a quick reminder...Be weary of having particular goods that you purchase (such as leather jackets) delivered directly to your hotel. Certain hotels do not do well with handeling the resposibility of delivering your purchased items to the correct room and may get rather irritated when you question where your item is because it did not make it into your room. This type of situation can create a rocky relationship with your tour guide. My tip would be to carry your purchased items with you throughout your tour for the day. This way you can be certain that it will make it back to your hotel with you and you will not end up stressed out when the hotel explains to you that the jacket that you spent 280 euros on is missing. New yorker's tend to get rather irritated when things like this happen and it may affect your group when the person at the hotel desk calls all of their guests rooms at 12:30 am.

    1. Theresa - I had completely forgotten about that! Excellent story. I remember the day we left the hotel and "someone" was writing a very long manifesto about exactly what was wrong with the hotel, the staff and just about everybody connected with the purchase in question, other than the purchaser. To you it was probably not funny. To me on the otherhand...

      By the way, glad to hear you survived Italy!


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)