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A Journey’s End

I initially was going to report on our most recent trip to Mexico and the all the things that went right, wrong and our second experience with SCUBA. But before we get to that, a near 20-year journey has come to an end and we couldn’t be happier.

My first paid reporting job was in high school for the local newspaper, circulation size 32,000. It never paid very much and I wasn’t going to win any awards doing stories for the “teen-beat,” but it was an introduction to journalism and the first step in a long journey. I then began writing for a smaller community newspaper while in college and would make about $15-20 per story.  The work for The View newspaper in Boonsboro kept my skills sharp as I tried other things from retail to teaching before landing my first TV job at WHAG in Hagerstown. I will be the first to admit the news director had no business hiring me (I had no television experience), but he took a chance and gave me a career.

He gave me the chance to grow beyond what I was hired to do, allowing me to report and produce as well. He gave me a job that gave me lifelong friends but, most importantly, the chance to meet the love of my life.

I left that job with a heavy heart, wishing to stay but it wasn’t in the cards. I needed to move up and move on and try something new and see where else this accidental career could take me. I ended up not far from home. It was an hour drive to Washington, DC along a commute many of my neighbors made. I would then spend the next 11 years at WJLA/NC8 working in the heart of DC.

Zeke at WJLA

My days of covering record-breaking snowstorms are over.

I was able to witness the stuff of dreams, like  interviewing movie stars, and nightmares, like staring at bloody bodies in the street. I gained a greater perspective on life and the people who make up America.

Pittsburgh or Bust

You may know that for the last two years my wife Amanda has been pursuing an amazing career opportunity in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I have held my job here in DC, making a 4 1/2 hour commute each weekend to share as much of the little time we have together as possible. The arrangement was only supposed to last a couple of months as I searched for work in Pittsburgh. The months stretched to almost exactly 2 years.

I am happy to say that our horrible, extended separation is coming to an end. I am leaving the job and career I’ve had for more than a decade to try something new. I will get to pursue my love of learning, helping to produce educational videos for the Allegheny Health Network. More importantly, I will get to wake up after a full night’s sleep next to my wife each and every day.

I will still have the chance to flex those skills writing here for No Kids, Will Travel.  I just won’t be paid for it anymore and won’t find myself spending eight hours each weekend traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike just to see my wife for a few hours. We will get back to stories about our adventures (and misadventures) in Mexico next week, for now I’m just going think about what to do with all the time I’ll have tomorrow not traveling.

I simply cannot wait to try something new.

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The Art of the Carry-On

All I need for a 5 day trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

All I need for a 5 day trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

We here at No Kids like to think we have mastered the art of the carry-on. We know there are those who hear our words of advocacy and will never know its truth, but we promise the word of the carry-on is less is more. More time, less hassle, fewer fees. I can’t remember the last time we went on a trip for a week or less and felt the need to pack more than a rolling carry-on and one personal item (usually a camera bag for me, Amanda totes our little blue backpack with all of our flag patches).

You need to follow a few rules to make carry-on life work. The first rule of carry-on is it’s got to be a carry on. Do not try to sneak some oversized backpack or suitcase past the gate; it won’t fit in the over head, you’ll try to make it fit, hold up the line and just look like an asshole to the rest of the passengers. Here’s a quick list of the measurements broken down by airline.

United Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta – 22”x9”x14” (Yes, The Wheels Count!)

Alaska Airlines 24” x 10” x 17”

Frontier Airlines 24” x 10” x 16”

JetBlue 24” x 10” x 16”

Southwest 24” x 10” x 16”

Virgin America 24” x 10” x 16”

You’ll want to try to keep the weight to 25 pounds or less.

Your personal item should be smaller than your carry-on. United Airlines actually limits the size to 17” x 9” x 10”. The rule of thumb is that it must fit under the seat in front of you, because it has to be stowed for take-off and landing.

When you’re choosing a carry-on or personal item, make it something durable. I once had to listen to a lady complain how she didn’t want her bag placed in the overhead or under the seat because she didn’t want it scratched. I joined the flight attendant in some dramatic eye rolling.

Packing

I generally try to pack light, by accepting that I am an over-packer at heart. After all, the first step in overcoming any problem is admitting to yourself that it is a problem.

I take only the clothes needed, and tend to wear the same outfit to and from the destination. I suggest trying to find outfits that are multipurpose, too. I like to pack a pair of trunks or slacks that are good for the pool and for walking around town without looking like I’m in a swim suit. I am also a proponent of getting laundry done at your destination.  It doesn’t matter if you need go to a laundromat, which is an interesting cultural experience in itself, or send out one or two garments with the hotel valet.  The odds are that what you end up spending at the laundromat or the valet will still be less than the fee many airlines charge for a checked bag.

I also try not to take a lot of gear. I’m a photographer, so it’s easy for me to over-pack my cameras and lenses.  I’ve learned something over the years, unless it’s exotic or a once-in-a-lifetime trip, just taking the body and a wide-angle lens is usually enough. For snapshots my phone does a pretty good job. The same goes for books, whether it be a paperback or journal, I try my best not to take them and rely on e-readers. Again, I can use my phone to dictate my journal entries then print or copy them over when we get home. A great reason for limiting what you take is because it is less to worry about leaving behind on your way home.

So, for your sanity and your pocketbook, pack light.

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Flying Rights

Cancelled FlightsI know we touched on this topic a bit last year in our post A Flying First as we described some of the pitfalls of air travel in the winter months. This weekend’s blizzard on the east coast of the U.S. led to the cancellation of thousands of flights and the complete closure of some airports, like Washington Dulles and Charlotte International, and makes a reminder about your rights as a passenger even more timely.

Most airlines do try to work with passengers when the major delay, cancellation, or airport closure happens. As inconvenienced travelers, we need to remember airline employees are human beings in a difficult situation. They’re not trying to screw you over. There is a limit to what they can do, either according to company policy or the laws of physics. Please don’t take your frustration out on them.  That said, if you feel the airline isn’t giving you a fair deal you do have rights.

The federal government has instituted a Passenger Bill of Rights that covers what the airlines have to do if you are unfortunate enough to have a delayed or canceled flight.  The first and most important thing you need to know is that on domestic itineraries, airlines are not required by law to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled (especially since many times the delay or cancellation isn’t the direct fault of the airline). You will find that most airlines do — it’s just good business. If your flight was supposed to take you to an international destination, you’re entitled to reimbursement by filing a claim with the airline. You even have legal recourse in small claims court if they refuse. If you are “bumped” from a flight that was oversold, which is the airline’s fault, you are required to be compensated.

The best time to fly and have a chance to get out on time is the early morning. You are less likely to encounter a ripple effect, a delay caused at another airport that gradually affects other airports.

One way to avoid frustration by events like this weekend’s blizzard is to pay attention to the news. You know the news loves to make a big deal about this kind of stuff and will hit the panic button early. You’ll see possible weather related delays and cancellations a head of time.

If you get stuck in future, remember you do have some rights. But also remember in many cases you’re at the mercy of the airline; being rude won’t help, being patient will.

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A Civil Rights Tour of Washington, DC

I was raised in a politically conscious household. Both of my parents, who grew up near Washington, DC, marched for various causes in the 60s from ending the U.S. involvement in Vietnam to Civil Rights.  I grew up with tales of great civil rights leaders like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as bedtime stories. The stories of these non-violent revolutionaries and their resolve to change the world resonated with me.

I was the target of bullies as a child (like a lot of kids), but I never got in a fight. I never wallowed, I was never afraid.  I wasn’t a “victim” of bullying because I never let it effect my sense of self-worth. It was the stories of civil rights leaders and their non-violent movement that gave me that resolve.

We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day tomorrow, and it’s not a day to celebrate just one man. The holiday is a day to celebrate the legacy of everyone who has fought for civil rights, and if you are in Washington, DC you can march your way to many important and historic civil rights locations in the course of a day.

Cedar Hill

I would start off the day in Anacostia with a tour of Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became one of the most famous abolitionists in American history. Rangers from the National Park Service lead the 30-minute tours. I suggest ordering a reserve ticket, which costs $1.50 but gives you a set tour time. The picturesque home isn’t in the best part of town, so get a reserve ticket, get Uber to drop you off at the gate and pick you up when you are done.

Supreme Court of the United States

The media awaiting the decision on Equal Marriage.

The media awaiting the decision on Equal Marriage.

The hallowed halls of the Supreme Court of the United States have been the home to some the greatest civil rights failures, like Dread Scott, and the greatest triumphs such as landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education. The court is open for visitors and tours Monday-Friday (except federal holidays).  You enter through the plaza doors located at each side of the steps.  You DO NOT enter through the big doors at the top of the steps. The plaza is wide open marble space you’ve probably seen in the media as you watch the running of interns, when young aspiring journalists bolt across it to their various media outlets when a big decision is coming down.  You see, no phones or recording devices are permitted while the court is in session.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

You should journey 2.5 miles west to the memorial of who may be the greatest civil rights leader, though not a pacifist by any means, Abraham Lincoln. The Greco-Roman design has 36 columns representing the number of states in the union at the time of Lincoln’s death.  The massive 16-foot statue of a seated Lincoln looking out over The Mall, and beyond that the Capitol, is flanked by engravings of his two most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural. The memorial is a monument to a man who truly took the weight of a nation and an entire people on his shoulders. The front steps are also the location where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, there is a plaque on the steps marking where he stood. The memorial recently dedicated to Dr. King is just a few hundred yards away, surrounded by cherry trees in the Tidal Basin. The monument of King standing apart from the Mountain of Despair is called the stone of hope to reflect victory borne of disappointment.

U Street, Northwest

U Street in Northwest Washington has been the hub of African American life in DC for generations. There you’ll find the African American Civil War Memorial that stands to remind us of the 209,145 soldiers who served in the United States Color Troupes during the Civil War. The memorial is in the Shaw neighborhood, named for Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts regiment made truly famous in the movie Glory, featuring Mathew Broderick, Morgan Freedman and Denzel Washington.

I would finish the day at two spots just down the street, First grab a bite at famous DC eatery Ben’s Chili Bowl, the home of the half-smoke chili dog. Then you can head down to the Bohemian Caverns, a club where Duke Ellington once played, for drinks and jazz music.

 

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A Tale of Tastes

We talk a lot about getting an authentic travel experience by getting to know the places and people of the culture we’re visiting, but we don’t always live up to that standard. The biggest example for me is food. I like what I like and there isn’t much else to say.  Still, I’m willing to try anything, especially if it is a local dish from a region we’re visiting.

What’s on That Skewer?

We were traveling in Greece with my family and sat down to eat at a taverna and found the restaurant menu was all in Greek (go figure). My father and I didn’t bother to wait for a translation and used our embarrassingly limited Greek to place an order. I have to say, if you never had goat before it’s an under-rated meat. The roasted souvlaki* (meat and veggies on a skewer) was lean, tender and gently seasoned.  I am not a huge fan of red meat, my main staple of protein in chicken, but now and then crave a burger or meat sauce. So having goat wasn’t out of the realm and gave me a story like this to tell.

Mmmm… Conch

Conch FrittersOur recent trip to Nassau was another chance to try something new. We walked from downtown Nassau to Fish Fry, a small community of restaurants just to the north of town that specializes in local fare.  The Bahamas are famous for their use of conch (yes, the snail-like creatures that live in the pretty shells) for cooking. I wanted to try some conch fritters. Balls of ground up conch, batter-dipped and deep fried. The look from the outside wasn’t much different than a serving of hushpuppies (a ball of fried dough).  I don’t like sea food, so with the ample application of ketchup I took my first bite.  The fried meat was surprisingly tender and not chewy, the “seafood” taste was very mild, too.  I could see ordering this dish again, but not on a regular basis.

Trying Tacos

The unappealing look and texture of the crunchy, yellow-shelled, sloppy-joe-filled tacos they used to serve in your school cafeteria is one of the things that has turned me off to Mexican food even today. But even I can find an exception now and then. We were traveling with our snorkeling and sailing group in Mexico and the mini-bus pulled over to this small restaurant with a partially enclosed porch where we were scheduled to stop for lunch. The town it was in probably had a total of 10-15 houses and no paved roads.

We took our seats on the classic plastic patio chairs and pulled up to a long table.  A waiter, most likely the owner and cook, came by and asked us our preference of fish or chicken (yes, I chose chicken), and a few minutes later plates of soft tacos featuring pulled chicken layered with peppers, onions and lettuce were placed in front of us. I was always taught to eat what was offered, especially if you were a guest. So, with no complaints, I rolled up the taco and took a bite. I really don’t like onions, but pushed past them to taste the mildly spicy chicken and enjoyed the meal.

I have a trick for getting yourself up for experimenting with your tastebuds; it’s called being hungry.  I make sure to not snack and work up an appetite so I generally want (and need) to eat. So, take some time to test those taste buds. I find your finickiness vanishes when your stomach is grumbling.

*the linked Souvlaki Recipe is for pork, but you can substitute goat, lamb, or poultry.

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New Year’s Confession

I am going to admit this right off the bat, I’m kind of phoning this post in.  The year has been a long one and I’m exhausted and need a little bit of a mental break.

We had a typical New Year’s Eve, for us anyway. I got home after a long day at work, watched a little hockey and went to bed. Amanda gave me a little shake and a kiss at midnight before I rolled over and went back to sleep.  I was lucky enough not to have to work in the morning, so we spent it in bed, only crawling out in time to see the Rose Parade. It’s far superior to that Thanksgiving one in New York. I’m now enjoying the beginning of the NHL Winter Classic. You should know by now we kind of love hockey in my house.

We do have a few travels to look forward to in the upcoming year. We are only 30 days from our third trip to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. The trip balances cost and time constraints with a need for sun and fun. We also plan on going for our second dive trip while there. I can’t wait to hit the water with some experience this time. I really think it my photography will be even better.

We are also in the process of planning a trip to Italy in September. We plan to visit Pompeii and (of course) Florence.

All of that said, who knows what the next year will bring? I hope for our readers it only brings pleasant travels.

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Free Doesn’t Mean Easy

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s easy.

You may remember a blog post from a few months ago where Amanda and I got separated on our flight back from the Bahamas. I chose to be bumped off the flight for a credit of $800. We knew this would make our next vacation even more affordable.

But, not surprisingly, there were a few catches with the credit from JetBlue. When we looked online and planned our trip, we looked up how you use points for JetBlue. We found out that we would have to choose from one of their approved hotels or apply it to airfare. So after a first pass at looking at our options we determined that it would be easier, especially flying out of Pittsburgh, if we used the voucher to pay for the hotel and not the flight. So I came up with three scenarios of flights from Pittsburgh to various locations and the best hotels from the JetBlue list.

We sat down, ready to book. That’s when the wrench in our plans appeared. There’s a difference between JetBlue credits and points; unlike points you can only use credits for air. So I was back at the drawing board and attempt to find the fastest JetBlue flights to and from the destinations we chose and a new list of accommodations since we would now have more options.

The dates we’re considering are Monday through Friday, which can cause its own complexities. You see, planes don’t always want to go the direction you think they should go on the days you want them to go there.

We found many flights headed to our target destinations, but they had to go through places like Newark, JFK, or Boston. I hate the idea of flying north to fly south, especially in the winter when weather in the north can be a problem.

We had narrowed down our choices to return trips to St. Thomas, USVI or Playa Del Carmen in Mexico. Because we’re only getting away for four nights, we wanted to maximize the amount of time on the ground in the tropics. We are also taking a large trip in September (to Italy as we celebrate our 10-year anniversary), so we wanted to be cost-effective as well.

The minimum transit time to St. Thomas was six hours and the accommodations came to $200 a night. We settled on Mexico because the transit time is closer to four hours, although we’ll have to fly out of Washington, DC. That just means we get to drive down and spend some time with family. The accommodations were less than $100 a night.

Amanda SCUBA Diving

We also compared scuba diving companies and would get more bang for our buck down in Mexico. We will be booking a room at the Hotel Kinbe which is right near the beach and we have stayed there before.

While it hasn’t radically changed our plans, a word to the wise: Before you accept a voucher when you’re getting bumped from a flight, make sure you know the rules and restrictions that may apply. In the end it was worth it. We got $800 in free travel and all it cost me was a night in Fort Lauderdale.

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