Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Paradigm Shift & The Nomad Architect

Can Travel Really Change The Way You See The World?

 The Nomad Architect - To boldly go where no Nomad has gone before. At least on this blog. Today's post subject intrigues me greatly, especially in the last few years as I have grown to the age when one is supposed to be firmly settled on all important issues. What does it take to really, I mean really, change someone's opinions, thoughts, perceptions and biases about a particular subject? And of course travel encompasses a litany of subjects. Culture, customs, language, politics, religion, art, architecture and music are just some of the things we develop strong intellectual and emotional beliefs about as we wander through our lives. So I thought I would share some thoughts gleaned from my own experiences and the effect of travel on all those things that make us who and what we are. As David Byrne said - "You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?...You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?...You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?" Certainly The Talking Heads can give one pause when pondering the subject of Paradigm Shift.

My favorite professor in architecture school, who studied under the great Mies Van der Rohe, hated words like paradigm. He was old school and thought the younger generation used words like paradigm to mask their intellectual shallowness. As I have grown older, I have come to discover he was pretty much on the money. Great thinkers, writers, artists and musicians have always managed to get to the heart of  a matter through the the paring down of language and images without the use of  creative tricks, faux intellectual devices or fancy schmancy words. One of the greatest leaders, thinkers, and wordsmiths of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill once said - “I’m going to make a long speech because I’ve not had the time to prepare a short one.” He was a favorite of Professor Gettle.

Merriam-Webster's defines Paradigm Shift as - "an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way." The good professor would simply say - "You changed your mind". Without getting into an endless discussion of the meanings of words, let us simply state that travel can cause a paradigm shift or can change your mind about a number of things. But let's be honest - Paradigm Shift sounds so much cooler than simply changing your mind, doesn't it? Anyway, let's move on.

As an architect, I must confess I have strong opinions on virtually every subject. My favorite color is red, I loathe traditional design, I hate meatloaf and I love southern women, especially one in particular, to name a few. Some opinions are simply immutable. But what about all the other things we have come to believe? We all have those mental bromides we have come to stand upon because of our own experiences and rearing, our exposure to hand selected media that validates our prejudices and discussions with like minded friends and acquaintances. We all live in our own self made bubbles.

When I began writing about various travels we have taken over the years and researching various places both here and abroad, one thought kept cropping up. How has travel changed me and mine? I have friends who really believe all the many myths and opinions about Europeans are actually true. In some cases they have become so ingrained in our mind's eye that the only way to challenge them is to actually go there and find out for yourself. You've heard all of them. The French hate Americans. Parisians are rude. The water pressure in London is abysmal. Italian women never shave. The list goes on and on. Let me just say for the record. The French do not hate Americans. Parisians are not insufferable, provincial jerks. The water pressure all over the UK is fine, even in the country. And Italian women tend to be so fashionable that shaving becomes moot. I must confess, however, that I never really looked, since I have my very own Venus de Milo on my arm at all times.

It is my hope that this post will serve as a sort of introductory mission statement to be discussed, or at least acknowledged, as I begin a series on travel in Europe. Each time I have been to Europe, I have come away with an entirely new way of thinking, seeing and listening to people of other cultures.  Their customs, their food, their art are all things that combine to make us as Americans understand both their history and culture as well as our own. I am by no means an expert of history, but, you simply cannot deny the historical rise and fall of empires and societies and its impact on current day life. America, with its history of immigration from the four corners, is a very young country relative to the countries of Europe. We don 't lack greatness or cultural uniqueness, we are just different and younger. Historians have documented the importance of the  Magna Carta, drawn up by King John of England in 1215, as the cornerstone of our very own Constitution adopted in 1787.

So the relationship between Americans and Europe is one which, though it rises and falls with geopolitical events of the day, will never be broken. Travel across the pond to experience Europe, even if for a short while, affords us a real opportunity to become more knowledgeable about the great cultures of Europe as well as our own historical roots and to participate in our very own Paradigm Shift. Hopefully, the good professor would be proud.

Next week. USA to Milan.

Goodbye & Buon Giorno,

D.L. Stafford

Travel Quote of The Week - "People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” – Dagobert D. Runes

Video Artist of The Week - Rusted Root. Who better to kick off our series on world travel than the one of the most unique bands on the planet. They may be from Pittsburgh, but nobody mixes fusion, jazz, acoustic, rock and world music better than this group of troubadours with insane percussion.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How To Be A Real Nomad On The Cheap

Is "Budget Travel" The Ultimate Oxymoron?

Well, it depends on your definition of what budget and travel really mean. I had a conversation with my son last night about a quick business trip he made from Atlanta to Orlando. As he arrived at his row to take his reserved window seat for his return flight, he came upon a couple occupying the aisle seat and his window seat. As the man in the window seat saw him waiting to take his seat, he turned to his companion and said disdainfully - "I told you he would show up". To which my son  said - "Yes I did". The gentleman then begrudgingly moved to the middle seat and presto! - everyone was in the proper  mood to endure the late night flight home. This scenario defines the antithesis of quality travel. It epitomizes the drudgery of flying in today's complicated  unfriendly skies. Unless you fly first class or happen to land a flight with a lot of empty seats, allowing you to inhabit enough space for actual humans, air travel is an exercise in stressful self loathing that can only be cured with medication. I have proclaimed the joys of train travel in Europe on this blog many times. Train travel actually gives credence to the admonition "Getting there is half the fun".  And of course, driving up the coast of California or through the hills of Tuscany on a Sunday afternoon is one of the truly great pleasures any Nomad would welcome.
And what about the budget part of "Budget Travel"? First, let's define budget. In researching various travel blogs, online magazines and other travel experts, "moderate" hotel prices range from $100 to $150. Finding quality digs for picky Nomads that do not cost a small fortune is becoming more and more challenging. If your idea of budget travel is to go to and find the lowest priced chain then read no further. If, however, you are a true Nomad and refuse to settle, then today's post is for you. There are budget places to lay your head. Low priced hotels, B&B's, apartments, even hostels can be found that will provide any discerning Nomad a cool place to bunk. The trick for Nomads is to find that really amazing cheap hotel only a block from the Eiffel Tower or the waterfront boutique that makes you want to stay forever and you don't faint when you pay the bill.

Of course, hotel costs are not the only component of budget travel. Transportation costs are becoming more and more challenging for the budget minded. However, through obsessive planning, searching and timing, a penny pinching Nomad can keep the cost of planes, trains and automobiles at an acceptable level. Finally, food and other things like shopping, entertainment and sight seeing  can add up to a significant portion of any travel budget. Eating, drinking and being merry can, indeed,  cost a bundle. So, just as you plan the big items, being smart and reasonable can help ensure that you travel like a Happy Nomad and not just a weary, broke vagabond.

Sleeping On The Cheap Is What We Seek

Now that we have established the basic conceptual boundaries of low cost travel, how do we actually achieve the Ultimate Low Cost Adventure for Cheap Nomads?

Do Your Homework.
I have said it before and it bears repeating. Obsessive research combined with strategic planning is the hallmark of successful low cost travel. You cannot just read the latest Fodors, Rick Steves or Lonely Planet and expect to get any real information on the kinds of places that fit the criteria for Cool Places for Nomads to Sleep. I have come to the conclusion that planning a great trip requires as much time or more than the actual trip. Following are some tips on finding the right place to stay.
  • Get organized. Make sure you track and book mark every web site, blog and hotel search engine in a concise set of lists and categories by location, price, type of accommodation and special category such as Wine Hotels. I have one folder entitled "Hotels We Absolutely Must Stay In". And sign up for automatic Email notices. Keep a notebook as a  travel journal and planning companion.
  • Make a budget.This is critical to achieving your goal of low cost travel. There is an excellent budget planning tool under the Design tab. Sign up is easy and the tool is excellent.
  • Plan an itinerary. An itinerary can be a simple written document or you can find several templates through the Itinerary link, also under the Design tab.
  • Confirm costs.When you find a hotel that interests you on a search engine  make sure you go to the hotel's web site to ensure you are getting the best price. Rarely do "hotel bundlers" actually have lower prices.
  • Be flexible. Sometimes finding a hotel a bit off the beaten path will take you into uncharted territories that will improve your trip for less money.
  • Follow blogs. Make comments and ask questions on travel blogs about places and deals. Click any link listed under Blogs The Nomad Follows in the right margin for some good intel.
Become A Virtual Nomad.
The power of the internet has drastically changed the world of travel. A vast community of travelers, writers, bloggers and vendors have combined to provide a constant, unabated stream of information for travelers of every ilk. Of course, along with this intense level of travel related information, comes classic information overload. So how do we cut through the rattle and hum to get good quality information that gets us where we want to go for the price we want to pay? With the multitude of search engines, travel blogs and web sites devoted to helping you find the right place at the right price, trip planning can be fun and rewarding in its own right for the economy minded vagabond. Following are just some of the web sites and hotel search engines with an ample supply of low cost sleeping options.
  • Tablet Hotels. This is one of the best hotel/B&B sites around. It list both professional and guest reviews. It has multiple filters including location and price. It even has a Most  Affordable Hotels List in the right margin. The B Hotel  in Barcelona at  a very low $66 per night  is just one example of cool places on the cheap.
  • Epoque Hotels. Another excellent site with a view to hipper digs, Epoque has filters for price and location. Check out 9 Hotel in Paris at $129 per night.
  • I-Escape. I love this site. It is so easy to use and provides great details, good and bad, for each property. One place on my list of places to sleep before I die is Spin and Margie's Desert Hideaway in Joshua Tree, California at a paltry $129 per night.
  • Avante Garde Hotels. Similar to Epoque, you can land some downright edgy hotels for great prices. It's hard to beat a deal like The Hotel Pulitzer Roma in the heart of Rome at $120 per night. It warms the cockles of any cheap Nomad's heart.
  • Unusual Hotels of The World. If unique is what you seek, this is the place. Featuring some of the most unique properties around the globe, you can spend hours finding rooms for the Funky Nomad. The Casa da Cisterna in Castelo Rodrigo, Portugal at a meager $100 per night is worth a look.
  • Boutique Homes. I include this site because of its emphasis on design. It has a special list entitled Chic and Cheap with many less expensive alternatives. It also includes many homes, apartments and villas for long term rentals such as the House of Baba Spiros, Peloponnese, Greece at $840 per week.
  • Eurocheapo. Great site for the budget minded traveler to Europe, where you can find rooms for under $100.
  • Hostelworld. The old image of hostels with rows of vagabond college kids sleeping in bunk lined barracks is giving way to a kinder, gentler inexpensive alternative for the Frugal Nomad. Today's hostels offer well designed rooms with all the amenities of pricier hotels and B&B's, including  en suite bathrooms, a critical non-negotiable for this Nomad. If you are looking to sleep cheap, this site is worth a look, with rooms as low as $30 per night.
  • Airbnb. This site, started in 2007 by a Rhode Island School of Design alumnus, has become an impressive player in the search engine world for travelers who want something different. The site has built up an impressive line up of rooms, homes, villas, apartments and even private islands at all price levels. How about a small re-purposed Hayloft on the property of Villa Migliorini just a few miles from Florence? It sleeps four and cost a ridiculous $93 per night. Or if you want urban, check out a Central Penthouse Studio owned by an architect that sleeps up to four in downtown Valencia, Spain at $83 per night. That leaves a lot of euros to spend on tapas and sherry.
  • Living Social & Groupon. I would be remiss if I didn't include the two top internet providers of "Deals of the Week" for everything from espresso machines to rafting trips down the Colorado. I have yet to find anything that makes it onto my own personal "HEY YOU ARE NOT GONNA BELIEVE THE AWESOME DEAL I GOT ON THIS AWESOME PLACE LIST". But that's just me, I could be wrong. By all means do not ignore their suggestions. Just make sure you perform due diligence on the travel deal of the year at Aunt Millie's Bayou B&B for a hundred bucks or an ocean "view" room at the intimate 1,000 room resort on Antigua.

Frugal Transportation Leaves More For Sleeping  & Eating Like You Mean It 

The focus of this post is finding unique places to sleep that don't break the bank. But, travel costs include more than that cool little cabin on the river  for $60 euro a night. Transportation to your favorite locale and then getting from where you are to where you want to be are also a significant part of your travel budget. Getting there and getting around on the cheap can be daunting, but here are some thoughts to help you plan your next big excellent adventure.
  • Planes. Flying is the largest single expense for any vacation, particularly if it is abroad. As in many things in life, timing is everything. You have to be an obsessive deal shopper when making plane reservations. I recommend you begin tracking fares at least six months prior to departure. I have found fares begin to drop significantly around four months  out. Also, make certain that you subscribe to every major airlines Email list to get their weekly or daily deals for specific destinations. Another factor affecting flying costs is departure and arrival cities. We live near Tallahassee Regional  Airport. Nobody in their right mind would ever fly out of my home town due to insane prices. We generally fly out of Jacksonville which is an easy two hour drive for us. It has many more choices and competitive prices both in the US and  Europe. Always check convenient multiple departure cities and arrival cities to get the best price. And finally, take advantage of Frequent Flyer Credit/Debit Card Point Programs.
  • Trains. Train travel in Europe is simply one of the most enjoyable ways to travel and tends to be the cheapest way for long and short distances. For everything you wanted to know abut train travel check out Rick Steves' Europe Web Site. He gives numerous details for every option for train travel on the continent.
  • Automobiles. Sometimes, only a car will get you where you want to go. Again, travel guru Rick Steves provides comprehensive information on the how, what, when and where of Automobile Rentals In Europe. 

 Eating, Drinking & Being Merry On The Cheap

This aspect of travel is the most intensely personal. What, where and how much we spend on food,   drink and other stuff varies considerably. The focus of this post, however, is cost conscious travel, so here are some ideas on how to have your cake and eat it too, or at least have a little creme brulee to go with your Le Big Mac. You Can Be A Frugal Foodie. Eating is one of life's most pleasurable  activities. Virgina Woolf said - "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well". However, eating well on a budget can be daunting. Here are some tips to eat like a king or at least an upper middle class peasant:
  • A L Carte - Not. Everybody knows ordering a la carte costs more. So, take advantage of hotels that include food as part of their rate. Some even include all of your meals, which can cost less than eating out. This is especially true of hotels and B&B's located outside of urban areas.
  • Do Your Own Thing. Order in or prepare your own meals with locally purchased items. This is especially true for longer stays and even more so for self-catering places. Some small hotels and B&B's  will purchase food items per your instructions. On a recent trip to The Natural Retreats in Yorkshire Dales UK, the proprietor provided a two day supply of wine, cheese, eggs, bread and all the essentials to prepare our own meals.
  • Make A Food Plan. Or at least find different places you can wine and dine at various price points and bookmark them on your mobile phone and notate them in your journal. Finding a place to eat on the road is much less stressful if you have done some pre-trip homework.
  • Ask The Front Desk. Always take advantage of the hotel concierge for local places to eat. If they are good, they will know all the best spots. And tell them that you are looking for a place that isn't off the charts price wise. Most hotel staff are eager to oblige you in your search for the best and cheapest meal in town.

And What Do We Do Now Love?

All travel must include those side trips, museum crawls and nights on the town to make wanderlust truly memorable. Finding  low cost activities involves the same methodologies for the perfect place, the cheapest flight and the best for less food. The internet is your best friend when you want to see the Broadway hit Jersey Boys or finally get to see the Mona Lisa up close and personal. Second, always be on the lookout for "free days" for museums and plan accordingly. Finally, most great buildings cost little to nothing to visit. And as this Nomad Architect knows, great buildings are what make the vagabond's world a better place. Seeing Notre Dame Cathedral, The Tate Modern or Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House opens your eyes, your mind and your heart to the possibilities of creative thought. And it cost little or nothing.

It Often Comes Down To Where and When

Where you go does make a difference. Some places just cost more. A well traveled friend told me once that he used to think New York was expensive until he visited London. Our recent trip to the UK confirmed his opinion as fact. I am not suggesting that you select your next adventure based solely on price. Just know that Big Sur Hotels start at $400 per night. As we are planning our trip next year to Spain, I have been pleasantly surprised by the relatively low cost of boutique hotels  as compared to other parts of Europe. But if Big Sur is your dream vacation, you can find unique, high quality places to sleep if you perfect the art of the deal by using some of the suggestions in this post. And remember our motto - We Don't Settle!
Finally, when you go can be the single largest factor in your travel budget formula. Last week, I posted on the end of summer travel blues and how to deal with it. The "high" season for most destinations is roughly from mid April to mid September.  If you have a disdain for large crowds and high prices, and what Legitimate Tightwad Nomad doesn't, then travel in the summer is anathema to your intrinsic need to achieve the joy of true wanderlust. Early spring, just before the madding crowd arrives, gives you great weather, blooming flowers, low prices and the run of the place. Most hoteliers are more than happy to give no cost upgrades and other perks for off season guests. The other end of the calendar is early autumn. Mid to late September affords the traveler the same benefits as early spring with beautiful seasonal fall colors, lower prices and a bigger room with a view than you would have gotten in July.  The only real downside of travel during the "shoulder" season is that some sites may be closed or have limited hours. That's a small price to pay when you get an ocean front room for half of what it is in mid summer.
So get busy. Read, write and dream yourself into your new world order of  lower cost, higher end travel. In this insane world of international political upheaval, $5.00 per gallon gasoline and an ever more worthless dollar, it is possible for all True Nomads to find that perfect place and actually go there for a price that doesn't require a second mortgage. All it takes is an unrelenting and obsessive quest for the best deals on the best places you want to go with the ones you love.
Happy Hunting
D.L. Stafford
Travel Quote of The Week - I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.  Oscar Wilde
Video Artist of The Week - Van Morrison. The Irish Troubadour brings soul, jazz, r&b and heartfelt lyrics to classics that have become ingrained in our cultural consciousness. Moondance alone brings a smile to any face no matter their generation.






Tuesday, October 2, 2012

More Random Musings From A Committed Nomad

Summer Is Over - Now What?

It's official, Friday, September 21, 2012 was the last official day of summer. Why do we love summer? The reasons are endless. School's out. The weather's great. It's ok to wear shorts. It's ok for girls to wear short shorts! Kid's hang out. Parents send kids to camp. Baseball. Mom and dad finally squeeze in that  romantic long weekend to their favorite little place. All the rock bands, big and small are on tour. And summer blockbusters are on the big screen. But the real reason we love summer? Vacations! One of my favorite professors in architecture school  told me that ALL people MUST take vacations to ensure physical and mental well being. Maybe you can finally take that long dreamed of trip of a lifetime to some far away place that you have only read about or seen in the movies. For others it's that annual trek to the lake or the beach to reconnect with people you only see during the summer to renew old relationships and foster new ones. Still others pack up themselves and their clan and take a road trip to discover another corner of the good old USA. Summer really is the Nomad's favorite season. I mean, let's face it. How many "travel" memories do you have in February?

Now that the long days of summer are growing shorter, our attention turns back to the reality of life. Work. School. Homework. To Do Lists. Leaves. Finally, because of all that fun stuff you did all summer, there just ain't no money! Yes, the grindstone of life beckons us back from the days of summer. Yes, fellow Nomads - Summer is over. Now what? In another installment of Random Musings from a Committed Nomad, let me offer some suggestions for activities and amusements to keep hope alive for Nomad's of every ilk.

The Nomad Architect's Cure for The Post Summertime Travelin' Blues

The following prescriptions for the Blue Nomad should be taken with an ample dose of bruschetta and gorgonzola  and washed down with a nice, inexpensive Pinot Noir at precisely 55 °F. Ponder as you will:
  • Dream. That's right dream. Take this time between now and the holidays to dream about future treks into the unknown. Let your imagination run wild and imagine yourself at that special place you have always wanted to go. All travel begins with a vision of you and yours lazing in the afternoon on the French Riviera or waking up with the whales on Puget Sound. 
  • Plan. Step two for the Nomad who makes dreams come true. With all of the tools at the disposal of the committed traveler, planning a trip is the next best thing to actually taking the plunge. The internet, travel books, TV shows and other travelers' opinions about places far and wide should be used when planning your itinerary. Just click on the Design Tab above to see various lists of websites, books, etc. to assist you in planning the perfect travel adventure
  • Listen. One great thing about Fall is the release of new music by bands and performers, both established and independent. In just the last few weeks new projects have been released by Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall and Dwight Yokum, just to name a few. Why is this important you ask? Maybe its just me, but, of all the arts, none can improve my day or my outlook like great music. I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" or Dave Brubeck's "Take Five". So get some new music and slip on the headphones while you're searching the web for the next cool place. It makes it more enjoyable and its a lot cheaper than round trip tickets to Madrid.
  • Think. This activity goes hand in hand with dreaming, but involves more practical matters like - How do we actually get to that camp on the northern side of Nova Scotia? or - Is it possible to live on $50  a day in Estonia like they claim in those bargain bin travel books?
  • Read. Read, Read. Read. And then  read some more. Nothing can prepare you for your next big and excellent adventure like reading about the places, people and culture of the next country or region you plan to visit. In addition to  the latest Rick Steves or Lonely Planet, read books that actually take you there. A Year In Provence, by Peter Mayle, prepared us for the vibe, the people and their ways in that enchanted region of France. Under The Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, gave us insight into the beauty and people of this slower part of Italy. The movie, starring Diane Lane, is worth the price too. I am currently reading A Year In The World, also by Mayes, for our trip across the pond to Spain and Portugal next year. And of course, I will reread Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises to bring the magic and mystery of Spain into focus.
  • Write. I started this blog because it helps validate my thoughts about travel experiences I have enjoyed with my wife and kids. I highly recommend starting a travel journal long before you set sail. It helps you organize your thoughts and generate ideas for places to go and things to do. And most important, going back and reading what you thought or said or planned gives you a sense of your own personal history.
  • Go. Just because summer is gone doesn't mean you can't travel. We just returned from a great three day trip to a cool little boutique on Ormond Beach. If you want to check out my post just click here. Traveling in the Fall has many advantages. It's cooler, less crowded and, best of all, cheaper. So don't hibernate just yet.
  • Save. You can save for your future travels in two ways. One, establish and contribute to a savings plan to meet your next travel budget. Second, make an extensive list of places you can stay on the cheap. One thing I have learned through years of travel is that, if you do your homework, you can find that special place without that special price. They are always off the beaten path and you have to put in the time, but they are there. There are web sites that contain hundreds of interesting B&B's, small hotels, rooms, apartments and houses for the frugal Nomad. My next post will focus on budget travel, so stay tuned.
  • Enjoy. For some, it's football. There really is nothing quite like an autumn afternoon at Florida State, Clemson or Auburn to understand the real reason we even have Fall. For others, its just the crisp, cool weather. Here in God's country, its about walking and biking in the afternoon or early morning to do all that dreaming, planning, listening and thinking about the architecture of Antonio Gaudi and the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, the bullfights in Madrid or the Flamenco of Andalusia. Plus, you can talk to yourself and/or your fellow walker/bicyclist without being interrupted.
And finally, this time of year prepares us for the real joy of the holidays when we can gather with the ones we love and talk about all those things we did over the summer. We Nomads can temporarily drop anchor and enjoy what's really important as we dream and scheme our next move.
Happy Trails
D.L. Stafford
Travel Quote of The Week - “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving." -    Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32)
Video Artist of The Week - Marcus Roberts. A Jacksonville native and Florida State alumnus, this accomplished jazz pianist attended the same Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in Saint Augustine, Florida  as the great Ray Charles. His interpretations of Monk, Ellington and Gershwin are without peer.