Tag Archives: travel tips

All the same and all new

All the same and all new

A flat brown English field out a train windowReverse cultureshock is one way to describe that feeling of coming to somewhere you consider home, only to realise that it has changed (or perhaps you have changed, and are seeing it differently). The familiar is suddenly unfamiliar. The returnee feels unsettled, alien in their own place, and frequently heads back out into the world with a sigh of relief.

I’m not going to say I’ve never felt it. Heck, I grew up feeling this – as a third culture kid, I was constantly told I was ‘British’ and Britain was ‘home’ (one home, at least) yet visiting Britain felt so strange. Even now I have a mismatch on some basic assumptions, and those trip me up.

(Immigration is perhaps a good example – until I was 20, Britain was somewhere you emigrated from not immigrated to, and I still assume the traffic flows both ways, and we (Brits) must keep welcoming EU nurses if want to be allowed to retire to sunny Spain.)

Coming back from travelling for six months, stuff had changed. There are new buildings, the one-way systems in Bath, Cambridge and Oxford seem to have been rearranged, friends have moved, grown beards, changed their hair colour… all the usual stuff.

K and I at Doncaster station
But what really made it hard to adjust (apart from the weather, let’s be honest) was people. I love so many brilliant people, and K is very social, so we had a bit of a whirl. And it was exhausting. People change plans! People are late (often us, I’m sorry to say)! People say yes, when they mean no, and no when they mean ‘let me text you on the night and we’ll sort it out then’. People fail to give you all the information. People have needs, desires, other friends, kids, all that stuff.

Planning a night out is like juggling cats, and I was really out of practice. I’m not going to pretend that aerial feline manipulation has ever been my forte, but in the 6 months we were away, we stayed with friends and family for about 4 weeks, total, and they were all pretty well organized so mostly we just let ourselves be taken around and about. Turns out when you get back to ‘real life’ you have to be a little more self-propelled. It was fun, but knackering and strange. And the strangeness was strange.

Now that we’ve been back for 3 months, Christmas is over and I’m starting to settle down. Things have gone quiet, and I’m getting used to all the Englishness around me. Our village is very pretty (very small and very pretty) and it’s good. But strange, in its goodness. We had a house party, and it went well. I’ve remembered how this social thing works, I think.

So what I’m saying is, I’m ready for people again. Shall we go out for coffee, you and I?

Around the world with hand luggage only

Around the world with hand luggage only

K and I with our luggage (backpacks) at Doncaster station

When I tell people that we’re going hand luggage only for our 6-month round the world trip, a lot of them visibly boggle. I think everyone imagines the list of things they have, use and love and tries to cram the whole lot into a handbag. Except, of course, packing for a long trip isn’t like that.

Why we’re going hand luggage only

  1. It’s cheaper – no baggage fees.
  2. We’ll be more mobile – we can run for a bus or walk to a hotel
  3. It’s really not that hard – have to do laundry at some point, right?

After 15 years of travelling on budget airlines, I could teach a degree course in packing light and getting away with more than you’re strictly allowed. Most of my trips have been between the place I share with K (wherever that is!) and my parents’ home in Switzerland. As a result, most of the holiday packing rules didn’t apply, so I could experiment more freely. I’ve learned that you can travel indefinitely on the stuff you’d take for a week. 

Most travellers and bloggers who list their luggage don’t seem to include perishables on their list, which I find unhelpful, particularly if you’re trying to get everything through the 10 x 100ml airport security bottleneck. Here’s everything I had in Iceland, details below. Or if you’d like to compare, you can see what I took on our last US trip in 2011.

Clutter of personal items spread out on the floor, everything I've packed for this trip

Clothes – zip-off trousers (2); thermal leggings; capri leggings; vest tops (2); thermal base layer; jersey dresses (2); bras (5); underwear (9); socks (3); swimsuit; bikini; fleece; no coat; sandals; hiking ‘shandals'; running shoes; head kerchief; ‘rain tent’ poncho; no umbrella

Gifts well, I’m not going to list them all out, but everything hidden in the orange carrier bag is staying in Charlotte. That’s the new baby effect!

Liquids –  deodorant; eczema cream (2); toothpaste; nail varnish (2); nail varnish remover; sun cream; Euceta bug bite cream

Other toiletries – disposable razors (2); tweezers; nail scissors; soap; Lush solid shampoo (in a yoghurt pot); electronic toothbrush (plus charger and spare heads); cotton pads; cotton buds; hair brush; hair ties (2); ‘first aid kit’ (ibuprofen, paracetamol, cocodemol, plasters, K meds) (don’t worry, we’ll buy mosquito nets, anti-malarials and bug spray before we need them); vitamins (6 months supply); Moon Cup; sanitary towels (about 5?)

Tech – laptop (plus adapter, kettle lead, mouse, headphones and pouch for all these wires); Kindle (plus cable); phone (plus travel sim); camera (plus a charging cable, 2 spare batteries, their charger, and some spare SD cards); Fitbit pedometer (plus charging cable); European to US plug adapters (2)

Eating and drinking – water pouch (500ml); plastic knives (2); plastic spoons (4 because I loved the folding ones that come free in Skyr in Iceland); at least one bar of chocolate and usually something like trail mix or granola bars; instant coffee packets (one-cup size, nicked from a hotel) (about 3?); sugar packets (about 3?); usually a banana, apple, peanut butter (in liquids bag for flying) or some other random food we didn’t quite finish up

Misc – reservation print outs; notecards (plus clip) (2); pens (2); swimming goggles; spare glasses; sunglasses; inflatable neck pillow; inflatable back support; mini sewing kit; little box of costume jewellery; money belt; wallet; passport; driving licence; some cash; padlock (plus cable) for luggage or lockers; travel towel; ear plugs; business cards

Knitting stuff – 2.5mm sock DPNs in carrying tube; pouch of interchangeables with cables; crochet hooks (2); darning needle; stitch markers (about 5?); needle size guide; yarn bought in Iceland (2)

Bags – 44L Cabin Zero bag; 12L Mountain Warehouse daypack; cotton Sperm Whale WhaleBag handbag; mesh laundry bag with zip; drawstring laundry bag for dirty stuff; assortment of plastic bags

I’ve tried to list every single thing I’m currently carrying. I don’t know how much the bag weighs (I suppose I could find out) but it’s been cleared onto 3 flights so far with no problems. Most of the things on the list are pretty small, and some stray back and forth between my bag and K’s. On our first day in Iceland, I walked about 10km with the bag, and it was fine, and in Boston we both ran for the train with our luggage. I was so glad we could, as both times saved us at least one taxi, and a bunch of money.

I really believe that travelling light doesn’t have to mean being deprived en route. If I’d brought more luggage, it would probably mostly be clothes, and let’s face it no one really looks at me much at the moment!

Avoid top-10 attractions

Avoid top-10 attractions

Anywhere which gets tourists has a List. It might only have one thing on it (the church in Foxton) or it might be a bit rubbish (the world’s oldest roundabout and inspirational urban planning in Letchworth) but the List will exist. For cities like Paris, London or Bejing, the List is so long that even the top 10 is overwhelming.

I suggest you avoid places on the List on your first trip to any big city. You’ll know what they are because they’ll be in every guide book, in the pamphet you get given at the hotel and the inflight magazine.

As a result, these places will be easy to get to, full of English speaking staff and incredibly crowded. Food will be expensive, queues will be long and all your photographs will look something like this: A crowded room at the Louvre with the Mona Lisa just visible over the heads of the crowdThat’s K looking at the Mona Lisa, if you can’t tell. He’s the one in the bright orange scarf.

Instead, figure out what you like to do anyway and do that. K likes to look at scale models and clothes shops and I like weird museums and yarn shops. We both like seeing places we’ve seen in films and getting up high to see the city spread out at our feet. So we do that. You might like football matches and local beers or dinosaur bones and porcelain – whatever it is, you’ll find it in the big cities.

Of course, when I say ‘the first time you go’, I’m assuming there will be a second time. If it’s the only time you think you’ll ever visit Paris, then yes, go see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, go up the Eiffel Tower and walk around Notre Dame. But if you think you’ll come back, you can save at least some of those things for next time.

I’m also assuming that you’ll have plenty of time to plan a first trip because I’ve found that’s usually the way it goes for us. The first time we go somewhere we plan months in advance and go for a week or more. The second time we throw some stuff in a back and go for a weekend. Or change planes with five hours to kill. Or wind up in town on business, free from 7pm Tuesday to 11 am Wednesday. And when that’s the case, it’s really nice to do something easy and the top-10 list supplies that.

Vegetarian food in the USA

Vegetarian food in the USA

A vegetarian Philly cheesestake on white paper. It is a bread roll stuffed with brown pieces (saitan, mushrooms and onions mixed in cheese)

This large sandwich is just half of a vegetarian Philly cheesesteak, bought at Reading Market in Philadelphia. It was delicious.

One of the downsides to being vegetarian is that I sometimes miss out on trying the local specialities (like pulled pork) and often have quite a limited choice when we eat out, both in the UK and abroad. Here are brief reviews of some of the places we ate at in the USA.

IHOP – cheap and tasty, try it!
Should really be called ‘pancakes with everything’ as they seem to serve you two meals (one of which is pancakes, on a separate plate) no matter what you order. This is great for a veggie (as long as you like pancakes) as you can split one meal and both eat well for about $10, total. They also have a number of options, including a cooked breakfast, omlettes and soup, and seem happy to remove or alter items.

Cracker Barrel – avoid
Southern cooking seems to mean ‘bacon with everything’ so even a side of vegetables isn’t safe. The restaurant was fun to visit, but the menu options were very limited: pancakes, maybe the soup of the day.

Five Guys Burgers – avoid
If you order a vegetarian sandwich with no cheese and no extras, you will be given an empty bun. And they’ll charge you $3+ for the privilege. Despite what it says on the sign, there is no vegetarian option unless you want an expensive grilled cheese or tomato sandwich.

Taco Bell – cheap and convenient
If you’re on a budget or on the highway, this is a  good place to stop as wraps start at less than $1. The Tex-Mex menu isn’t broad, but does include vegetarian options.

Moe’s Southwest Grill – tasty
A food court standard, Moe’s lets you choose the base for your Mexican-themed meal (meat or veggie) then add plenty of extras (like rice, sauces, cheese). Honestly, you could eat a good meal just off the extras, and it’s pretty tasty.

I’ve only included chain restaurants here, and my comments are based on my personal preference and what was available in the venue we visited at the time so your experience may vary.

I found there was usually a better selection for vegetarians at little, local restaurants than the chains, and was surprised and pleased by the range of vegetarian foods (meat substitutes and the like, not just veg!) in the supermarkets we shopped at. And, of course, there was plenty of new candy to try!

Carry on travelling

Carry on travelling

I'm a white woman, mid-twenties with brown hair blowing all over the place, knitting a yellow sock with the Statue of Liberty in the background

This post would make more sense if I had taken a photo of our luggage at some point but I didn’t so you get this picture of me working on a sock on the Ellis Island Ferry instead.

So, did it work? The whole travelling for a month with one carry-on bag? Yes.

Of course, what you saw laid out on the bed wasn’t the whole story: I was also travelling with K and if we’d managed to fit enough stuff for both of us for a month in one bag, I would be calling the Vatican and announcing a miracle.

In the end, we took 3 bags: a 65 litre backpack (hold luggage) with K’s stuff and the gifts we were taking, my 35L backpack (and yes, all that stuff fit in that one bag) and a daypack for K to take on the plane (about 15L, I think). Here are a few things I learned.

Save space for your souvenirs. We didn’t bring much back, but new shoes, a t-shirt and a couple of dresses take up space. And – of course – there was yarn buying.

Folding luggage is brilliant. We took a 35L MoutainWarehouse Packasack Holdall * which collapses down to the size of a folded t-shirt. It was really handy – we used it as a laundry bag, to carry groceries, to corral stuff for particular trips (like our train trip) and then as larger carry-on luggage on the way back.

Schedule laundry in. I thought I’d just do it when we needed to, but there were more interesting things to do, so I didn’t until the day I realised I had no clean undies left at all. This could have been better.

Question the essentials. I hardly used my sun hat  or my rain cape as we were mostly in places where shelter was easy to come by. So maybe next time I won’t take them. Or a toothbrush, as I was given a perfectly decent one on the plane.

Plan to shop. If you like to shop, that is. K does, so next time I think we’ll plan for that by leaving out a couple things he won’t need immediately, like a sweater or extra t-shirt.

Take needle and thread. Both the bras I took on this trip broke, one on the plane on the way out and one in the airport on the way back. And, as a knitter, I had ends to weave in, too.

Interchangeable needles are brilliant. I took about three pairs of tips in my favourite sizes and was able to cast on with yarn I bought straight away.

Don’t take complicated knitting. Turns out I have no interest in trying to knit lace when I’m tired or jet lagged or on a train or watching a baby or, in fact, doing any of the things I did this trip. But I did knit two pairs of plain socks.

All in all, it was great a success: we had everything we needed for comfort and everything we took got used at least once. I also didn’t get any back pain from carrying luggage and we were able to hop on and off public transport easily, which saved us a lot of money – the one taxi we took cost $45 for a 15 minute trip.

* This is the only product of this type I’ve seen, and we paid less than £10 for ours, which is a good price. However, the fabric already has a small hole so I don’t know if I’d use it as check-in luggage.

Train Travel in the USA

Train Travel in the USA

View out of the window of an Amtrak train with a blue seat back on the left. The window frames a blur of green trees.

We got on the train in Charlotte at 07:00, and got off about 19:00 after twelve hours of travel and three hours later than we expected. Despite this, it was a good trip.

This is the only train trip I’ve taken in the USA and it was more like travelling by plane than by a European train.

Book in advance – the pricing system, while less complex than the British one, goes up the closer you get to departure. Not knowing this cost us $40.

You’re told to get to the station early - 30 minutes before the train leaves which is like hopping on a commuter flight in Europe. This is because…

You must check large bags which freaked us out slightly, as we didn’t know that until we got to the train station. Luckily ours counted as handbaggage.

Only 2 pieces of handbaggage per passanger – I told you it was like flying, right? They even have those wire boxes so you can check if your bag will have to be checked in.

Food is reasonably priced but limited. The dining car looked like a diner on wheels with cute booths with blue leather upholstery and cost about as much as the Starbucks we’re in right now.

Only major hubs are served so you can expect to have to travel further once you reach your destination as stops are up to 90 minutes apart.

Trains go slow here. If you’ve got a car (and don’t need to take breaks) it’s probably about the same time to drive as the train – when it was moving – seemed to be going only a little faster than the cars on the road: I would guess about 70 miles per hour.

Our train had plenty of legroom – and I’m 6 foot tall, and had room to cross my legs in economy – and plugs for laptops plus Wi-Fi is coming soon. There’s space to move around and the toilets were roomy and clean, all of which made the trip surprisingly pleasant although brutally long. I’d strongly recommend taking a packed lunch and dinner and more water than you think you’ll need. And a good book or five, of course!

Take advantage of jet lag

Take advantage of jet lag


The sun, just about to rise over the sea off South Beach. The sky is a pearly blue, the sea dark, and between is a band of soft yellow light.
In Miami, the sun rises at about 7am in Septermber so it’s easy to catch a sunrise over the ocean when your hotel is a block from the beach.

Jet lag kicks your body into a new circadian rhythm and it can be disorienting. I like to take advantage of being awake at odd times to see things I wouldn’t usually see.

All packed

All packed

The clothes and other personal items I packed for the USA trip spread out on a bed. Details of  in text.

I mentioned that I hate lugging heavy bags around, but did I mention that I’m nosy? I love Flash Your Stash day and anything else that gives me a peak into how people are living their ordinary lives. So here’s my contribution: everything I’m taking to the USA. And a chance for you to get a look at my pants (bottom left if you’re speaking British, bottom right if American).

Clothes 3 dresses; 2 t shirts; pair of zip-off trousers/shorts; 2 pairs of leggings; 9 pairs of underwear; 3 bras; no socks; swimsuit and goggles; no bikini; raincape; no coat; sunhat; headscarf; pair of sandals; no pjamas

Entertainment ball of laceweight; 4 sizes of interchangeable needle tips; ball of sock yarn; bamboo DPNs; notions; Kindle; netbook; wires and chargers; headphones; camera case and spare batteries; no phone

The rest painkillers; back support; sunglasses; spare glasses; laundry bag; day bag; passport; no wallet; hair brush; comb; toothbrush and toothpaste; deodorant; no other toiletries; couple of necklaces

Not shown fleece; camera (obviously); second pair of sandals; notebook; gifts

We are so close to leaving that I can’t tell if this is too much stuff or too little. Either way, I’ll let you know! My bag’s pretty heavy so I’m thinking there’s too much stuff in there. And it’s not like I can’t go shopping in Miami…

I hadn’t really noticed until I took the photo but my luggage is mostly clothes. So that’s an obvious place for a bit of a cull – I’ve already taken one pair of shoes out: 2 more things to go!

How to Pack Light

How to Pack Light

Travelling light is easier when going for a month than two weeks: if you know you’ll have to do laundry, you can just pack for a week but if – like me – you hate washing your undies in the sink, then there’s always the temptation to slip in a couple more pairs of knickers, another t-shirt, a pair of shorts and save yourself the trouble.

I’ve taught myself to pack light over the last few years, spurred on by EasyJet charging for hold luggage – and sore muscles from lugging a 20kg bag across London. Here’s how I do it:

Think about it in advance
Honestly, I think about packing well before I start doing it. I find it’s a good thing to think about as I’m drifting off to sleep, partly because it’s dull.

Beware of special clothes
For events like weddings, beach holidays or skiing, try pick outfits which can be reused as ordinary wear. For example, I can wear a t-shirt for ski and après-ski as long as the après-ski comes first.

Be honest
Packing light is relative. If you want to wear a different outfit every day, see if you can mix and match or pack physically light, small items. If you’re happy wearing the same shorts all week, but can’t face a week at the beach without half a dozen books to read, swap out the clothes for paperbacks. I’ve done both, and my top tip is: buy an eReader.

Take 3 things out
When you’re finished packing, take at least 3 things out. This is a tip I got from a Libby Purves book, and it’s a great way of pushing me a little bit past my comfort zone. Sometimes the things come back next time, but often they don’t.

Make a list
That way you don’t have to think so hard about each trip. And if you update it when you get home, you’ll know what not to take next time.

Don’t be prepared
It’s the easiest way I’ve found to overpack. It’s so simple to chuck in an extra pair of shoes (in case these ones rub) and a spare swimsuit (in case I want to wear a bikini) but it quickly adds up. Now, I just tell myself I’ll buy it if I need it – and only pack shoes I’ve owned and worn for at least 2 weeks.

I’m planning on taking only hand luggage on our month-long trip to the USA, so this is exactly what I’m doing at the moment: adding things to my list and taking them out. And trying to convince K to pack light, too, so I can fit more yarn in his bag on the way back!

There is a caveat to my one-bag policy – we’re going to stay with some friends and I reserve the right to check in a small bag with gifts and food from the Old Country if I can’t fit it all in my pack. It’s a small price to pay when someone is letting you stay with them and has a cute kid to spoil!