Traveling Thursday – Be a good group member

Being a good traveler on a group tour or excursion means that you have some responsibility to both the others in the group and the guide. We know that you shouldn’t keep people waiting but you should also communicate if you are going to step away from the group.

During our time in Tuscany, one of the ladies in our group continually strayed away from the pack. These towns are relatively small but full of a winding streets and alleys that make it quite easy to get turned around. She had no idea where she was going or where our meeting point would be and yet she felt comfortable taking off on her own. At one point, most of the group was keeping an eye out for her. No one wants to spend their vacation looking out for a complete stranger.

So how can you be a good group member?
– Before signing up for a group tour or excursion, consider the group dynamic and make sure it blends with the way you want to travel.
– Don’t sign up for a strenuous excursion if you have mobility issues.
– Listen.
– Understand the tour itinerary. If you really want to see the inside of a site but it’s not on the itinerary, don’t assume you will be able to make it happen. Ask questions before booking the trip.
– If you need to take a break or step away from the group, talk to the guide. They should be able to make suggestions and at least minor accommodations. It will be far less embarrassing to chat with the guide than to have everyone searching for you.

What tips do you have for being a good group member?




The Grand Journey – Return to Rome

romrrMr. McB mentions “the dream that was Rome” in his recap of our visit. Ah, the sweet naivety of a first-time visitor; that was me before 2010. I also had a dream that was Rome but that fantasy was dashed by the reality of this frenzied and often frustrating metropolis. After that visit, I echoed Gracchus, “Rome is the mob.”

Admittedly, I was working at the time so instead of just keeping an eye on my own belongings, I was responsible for watching over the wallets and purses of a group and that’s no small feat in Rome. There are pickpockets, gypsies, and aggressive street vendors surrounding the tourist attractions. Despite all of this, Rome is still home to many famous sites that you really should see for yourself if the opportunity is presented.

We chose the “Rome on your own” excursion which included a bus ride from the port in Civitavecchia to the drop off point at Piazza Del Popolo. We had a guide on the bus who spoke about Rome, gave suggestions for our day, passed out maps, and consulted with passengers one-on-one to be sure they were prepared for the day. We could have saved money by taking the train but that has its own dangers. Should the train schedule have been disrupted, and that’s a definite possibility, we would have shelled out $300-400 to cab it back to the pier. If we took the train, we would have also missed out on the helpful tips provided by our guide.

Shortly after arriving, we went straight to the metro stop at Flaminio which is just around the corner from the drop-off. We got a little twisted around in the tunnel and needed the help of a nice Italian man to operate the turnstile but we were soon on our way to the Colosseum. The trip involves a transfer but that couldn’t have been easier. Termini station was easy to navigate with all sorts of signage. We were both stunned at just how simple it was to take the metro in Rome.

As we walked toward the Colosseum, we started to encounter those street vendors I mention earlier. These were pretty tame but it was a good reminder to be alert.

We purchased tickets online before leaving home. The Disney Fast Pass has nothing on a prepaid admission to the Colosseum. The ticket line was terribly long, even early on a day in November but we didn’t even stop; we just moved forward in the special row for those with prepaid tickets. Buying a ticket at the Forum is also an option since it includes the Colosseum but that line was at least 30 minutes long. If you have one port day in Rome, you don’t have time to waste.

On my last visit, I wasn’t able to see the Colosseum from the inside. I was very eager to explore this site but wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel. Built in the 1st century AD, the Colosseum held 45,000 spectators and was the largest Roman amphitheater in the world. The structure was built for gladiatorial competitions and other “games” meant to win the favor and allegiance of the Roman populus. I knew what happened inside the Colosseum but I still wasn’t prepared for the feeling of sorrow that resonates through the ruins. For me, there was nothing that spoke to the glory of Rome. Yes, the structure is remarkable but it was built to make a game of death and suffering.

rom11It is estimated that 500,000 people, including gladiators, and over a millions wild animals were slain on the sands of the Colosseum. The death toll for a single festival in 240 A.D. includes 2,000 gladiators, 70 lions, 60 wild horses and donkeys, 30 elephants, 30 leopards, 19 giraffes, 10 elk, 10 hyenas, 10 tigers, one hippopotamus, and one rhinoceros. The festival may have lasted for several months but does that make it any easier to comprehend?

rom1rom3It is also believed that early Christians might have been martyred here. There is proof that Christians were slain in other arenas in the Roman empire, including one that stood near the present day site of St. Peter’s so it is not unrealistic to think they were also killed in the Colosseum. For this reason, it is considered a holy site. The Pope conducts the Stations of the Cross outside the structure on Good Friday.

rom2The bodies of fallen men and animals were taken out of the death gate and dumped into a common burial pit. When workers excavated the site in the 1800s, they had to take frequent breaks because of the overwhelming stench that remained centuries later.

rom12rom10It’s easy to condemn those who created and watched this spectacle. As we walked through the site, I thought about football and the current state of player safety and head injuries. It was uncomfortable to think about this and draw the natural parallel between these games and those that we enjoy today.

rom24Gladiatorial games were outlawed in the 5th century. Games involving animals continued for another century but by 523 those were gone and the arena was unused and fell into centuries of disrepair. rom5rom20

The Colosseum was once covered in Travertine marble. This was removed after the arena fell into disuse. Much of the marble was used in the construction of St. Peter’s and other churches.

rom8Temple of Venus and Roma from the Colosseum

rom7This view of the Arch of Constantine is visible from the upper level of the Colosseum near the gift shop. After winning a key battle against Maxentius and attributing his success to a vision of Christ, Constantine converted to Christianity and declared that the religion was to be tolerated in the empire. This allowed for the end of persecution and the start of Christendom.

rom22After leaving the Colosseum, we made our way to the Roman Forum. Again, we avoided the main line and were inside the site in just a matter of minutes.


I regret not having an audio tour or guidebook as we made our way through this sprawling site.

rom27The Arch of Titus commemorates the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Arch de Triomphe is modeled after this structure.


rom29rom30rom32Part of the Basilica Aemilia and the larger Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Built in honor of a deified emperor and his wife, the temple is now a Catholic church.

romantoninofaustinaromromulusAnother former temple that went on to become a Catholic church. In this instance Emperor Maxentius devoted the site to his son Valerius Romulus, who died in 309. Maxentius is the emperor who lost in battle to Constantine. While trying to cross the Tiber during that battle, he fell into the water and drowned.

After leaving the Roman Forum, we set out for Capitoline Hill or Campidoglio. Our research told us this was a great place to get a view of the city and to see statues created by Michelangelo.

romcapoPalazzo Senatorio
The fountain features the gods of the Nile and Tiber rivers.
Minerva stands in the middle.

rombigstatueThe Nile

rom40I’m not sure who that fellow is but as you can see, he is enormous.
If we go back to Rome, I want to visit the museum here.

romcapstatueThis is a bronze copy of a statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original was saved because it was mistaken for a statue of Constantine. It is the only fully surviving bronze statue of a pre-Christian Roman emperor.

rommich1Michelanglo’s statue of Castor

rommich2Here’s Pollux with his arm outstretched.

Before heading to the Panethon, we stopped at Il Vittoriano or Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), a national monument.

rom41The monument is home to the Tomb of the Unknown. It also honors Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a unified Italy. The structure is interesting architecturally, though not well-loved by most Italians as it is seen as a bit overwhelming given its proximity to the ancient ruins.

We made our way through the increasingly crowded streets and arrived at the Pantheon.

romfountrompant Now a Catholic church, the Pantheon began its life as a temple that was devoted to all gods (Pan-theon). The Pantheon is best known for its dome and oculus. Made of cast concrete, the dome is a perfect hemisphere resting on a solid ring wall. Michelangelo studied this dome before beginning work on the dome at St. Peter’s.

romocculusInside you will find a number of notable tombs including Raphael, the artist not the turtle, and Vittorio Emanuele II. It’s easy to forget that this is a church but keep it in mind and behave accordingly.

romvittorioemanueleWith an ever-growing rumble in our tummies, we soon sat off for the Piazza Navona to grab a bite. Our guide highly recommend this area of town and the tartufo, an ice cream specialty. After a short walk, we were greeted by a lovely square filled with artists and restaurants. Our guide said this is a spot frequented by Romans, and not just tourists.

romnav2romnavoFrom the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers

romtartM chose a vanilla gelato while I chowed down on the tartufo. This treat features a maraschino cherry and what tasted like a bit of rum surrounded by chocolate ice cream that is then coated in a hard fudge shell. It’s rich and really unlike anything I’ve tasted before.

After a nice sit, we were off to Trevi Fountain. After 20-25 minutes, we made it and found ourselves amongst hundreds of tourists. With a little patience, we were able to make it down the steps and sit by the fountain for a while.

romtreviromppTrevi Fountain is a pickpocket’s paradise especially with folks getting into bags and pockets to get coins for the fountain. If you go, have your coins ready before approaching. If you are wearing a backpack flip it around so the bag is on your chest. Be alert.

After seeing the fountain, we followed our noses to Pizza In Trevi, a pizza joint around the corner. These slices were fresh, delicious and a good value. I had thin strips of eggplant on my pie. Oh so yummy!

rompizzamromeggplantInstead of sitting down, we decided to keep walking toward the Spanish Steps. I missed them on my first trip and really wanted to see them. As it turns out, I didn’t really miss anything the first time. They are steps covered by crowds of people. It was interesting to see how people behaved (making out, leaving their iPhone unattended so it could be stepped on, lying on the steps…) but I wouldn’t go back. I cannot recommend them, especially if your time is limited.

romspanishWe continued on toward the Piazza del Popolo as our meeting time was drawing near.

rom45We stopped in to Santa Maria del Popolo. It is said that Nero is buried nearby and that his ghost haunted a particular tree that used to grow on the site of the church. After chopping down the tree, and evicting the devilish crows that lived there, the church was constructed.

Our guide recommended this place and I’m so glad she did. On the outside, the church is nothing special but the inside is very interesting. It also houses two Caravaggio’s. You cannot photograph these works but they are worth soaking up with your own eyes and forgetting the camera for a while.

rom47The high altar and the Madonna of Popolo

rommarFuneral monument of Giovanni de Castro

rommariagraverommary2With 45 minutes to kill, we walked away briefly to see the Tiber River. If we had enough energy, we could have hoofed it to St. Peter’s but by that point, we were both more than a little tired.

romtiberI was much happier with this trip to Rome. It’s still crazy and you have to be on guard, but there are many sites worth seeing including those that won’t make it to the “must” list in every tourist guide. Don’t be surprised if you’re a little disappointed with the famous attractions (Spanish Steps, Trevi) but there’s bound to be at least one little treasure (Piazza Navona, Maria del Popolo) that will make up for it.


Traveling Thursday – Meeting Times Matter

Most group tours or cruise excursions feature at least a little time for passengers to explore, shop, or eat on their own. The guide always communicates a meeting time and meeting location and far too often, there is always someone who returns to the group late.

I’m here to implore you not to be that person. By returning to the group late, you send the message that you are a little more important than everyone who made it to the meeting point on time. Understand that almost everyone in the group would have liked more time to explore but instead they followed the rules and returned on time.

Not only are you behaving like a jackass, you also make things more difficult for the guide and driver.

It might seem that a tardy arrival isn’t a big deal but it can really create havoc. Many popular tourist areas have temporary bus parking close to the pedestrian center. Late arrivals can cause the bus driver to have to pay additional fees or risk a fine if he/she exceeds the time allowed in this area.

In many countries including the US, bus drivers are limited to working a certain number of hours each day. If someone in your group returns to the bus five or 10 minutes late, your driver will probably not exceed the limit. If that short delay is compounded by a traffic jam or detour, you might end up with a driver who is no longer able to drive. When Mr. McB visited the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, one of the passengers returned to the bus late and the driver almost ran out of time before the group got back to Dublin.

Consider that a 10-15 minute delay for a morning stop could also make you late for a lunch or tour reservation later in the day.

Timeliness is also very important when it comes to the all aboard on a cruise ship. The comings and goings in a port are not a haphazard affair. Sailing away from a port is a carefully orchestrated event generally involving a pilot ship and tug boat. With all these preparations, there is little tolerance for tardy passengers and the ship is within its rights to leave them behind.

Please just BE ON TIME when you are traveling with others. I know this might seem elementary but given the experience on our cruise, this is a lesson that some folks haven’t learned yet.






Traveling Thursday -Tipping Take Two

Last year, I wrote a post about tipping those in the travel industry. I’m adding to that advice today with a note about tipping while abroad. In the past, many travel companies and guides said that it was acceptable to tip in US dollars as long as you were using bills and not coins; this is no longer the case due to rising bank fees.

A guide explained that shopkeepers could no longer accept US dollars because  they were easily paying 25-30 percent in fees to convert the dollars to euros. While she never mentioned tipping or the travel industry, I immediately thought of it and was thankful that we had been tipping in euros.

If at all possible, tip in the local currency. If it isn’t feasible remember that in addition to the exchange rate, you should consider the large fees that the bank will charge when your guide or driver changes money.

Traveling Thursday – Upgrades, Add-ons and Travel Insurance

Yes, I’m going back to the topic of travel insurance. Forgive me but I haven’t written about it in quite some time and there is more to share.

If you make any travel plan upgrades or add services or extensions to your trip, don’t forget to update your travel insurance coverage. Yes, it will take some extra effort on your part and will involve an expense but if there are problems, you want to get your full refund.

If you purchase a $300 upgrade to your accommodations, you will likely pay $25-35 to have this added to your plan. Isn’t it worth that amount to ensure that you will get a full refund?

If your original plan had features (like cancel for any reason) that had to be purchased within a certain number of days after booking the trip, the same rules apply to your add on.


Traveling Thursday – What’s In Port

While the cruise line’s packaged excursions are always an option, more travelers are considering touring on their own. I highly recommend What’s In Port if you are looking to add some independent exploration to your next cruise itinerary.

The website can help you determine the distance between the port and the attractions that most travelers want to see. It also provides links to maps and recommendations for the best methods of transportation for accessing these sites. With more than 1,200 ports represented, it’s a great resource.

Traveling Thursday – That’s a liquid?!

When writing last week’s post about the new guidelines for carry-on items, I thought about those “surprise liquids” that can throw off even the most careful traveler.

What do I mean? Did you know a snow globe is governed by the 3-1-1 rules? If you want to carry on a snow globe, the globe part must be no bigger than a tennis ball (about 3.4 ounces of water) and the whole thing, base included, has to fit in a quart-sized baggie.

Peanut butter and yogurt are also governed by the 3-1-1 rule. Grapes, which actually seem more watery than peanut butter, are not.

When there’s any question, consult the TSA’s prohibited items database for guidance.

Traveling Thursday – Riding the Bus or It’s OK to be Afraid

A few weeks ago, I took Greyhound from Greenville to Atlanta to help my employer save a little money while I was attending a conference. This was my first experience with Greyhound and the bus station.

As I sat down to wait, I immediately went on full alert. My senses were heightened and every noise or sudden movement made me jumpy.  I am normally a mellow traveler but I was not in my normal travel environment. I was in a situation where it made sense for me to be weary. It was new and I was alone. I hate to admit to being afraid but I was.

By time I boarded the bus, I had begun to talk with other passengers who were waiting and gradually became more comfortable. The bus ride itself was a treat. I had a row of seats to myself and enjoyed the free wifi while I stretched out. Really, it was the most relaxing drive to Atlanta that I’ve ever had.

When I left Atlanta to come home, I was a little better prepared for the bus station but still felt a bit uncomfortable. There is a stark contrast between the order of an airport and the chaos of the bus station.

The point of this post isn’t about the bus but it is about the fear we experience in an unfamiliar setting. It’s OK to be scared. Sometimes our fear keeps us safe by prompting us to be smarter and more vigilant. So don’t avoid new experiences, whether on a trip or in your daily life, but give yourself a break if you give in to fear now and again.

Traveling Thursday – Portable Medicine Cabinet

Looking for an easy way to take an array of over-the-counter remedies along on your next trip? Make your own portable medicine cabinet using a large pill dispenser.  The $2-3 you pay for the pill dispenser is roughly the same price you’d pay for just one dose of an OTC med in the airport or hotel gift shop.

pharm1I came up with this idea when I was traveling for a living. Each compartment holds a certain kind of pill – Advil, Imodium, Benedryl, motion-sickness tablets, or anything else you might need. I used a permanent marker to label each compartment. I purposely left the final box open without a label so I could have some flexibility depending on when and where I was traveling.

pharm2Between Mr. McB and I, this medicine chest has been on a great number of trips and in several countries. Whether in a checked bag or carry-on, this kit has never caused any problems in the security line. I highly recommend making your own  before your next trip.