Like the look of our model in this photo by @guillermo_portillo, we are all getting our bearings as we re-face the world.
By SteamLine writer, Cassandra Csencsitz
I've loved to travel since youth, but as a SteamLine team member, I've been given a greater opportunity to see travel through instructive eyes, both spiritually and literally. Travel is its own art form and one that makes us wholler and fuller as human beings—less even for the ways it entertains than how it pushes us to be better and braver souls on this mortal coil.
Today, following the pandemic, traveling calls for a new level of caution, planning, flexibility, and gratitude, adding another layer of responsibility and excitement to the adrenaline already surging when we hit the road.
Read on for a breakdown of takeaways from my five-week adventure in France, where we made our travel comeback to serve my children's language immersion.
MY TOP 10 TRAVEL TAKEAWAYS FROM 5 WEEKS IN FRANCE
I. THE ART OF THE ITINERARY: Plan for the Best
First things first, when creating your itinerary, indulge in your irrational dream version, the one you might have attempted in college, without kids, or if it were possible to be two places at once. Enjoy that. Then equally enjoy paring it down and leaving room for Plans B, C, and D. Thus begins your practice of making solid plans and being ready to change them if your spirit moves. To do this is the divine right of The Traveler.
The Joy of Canceling
Think of your itinerary as a rough draft not a blueprint, i.e., do not lock yourself in logistically or emotionally. You may have a trip-defining chance meeting, a happy accident, or a better idea. But in order to cancel with impunity:
—Reserve ONLY Airbnbs with flexible (full or partial reimbursement) cancellation policies up to the last minute or shortly beforehand.
—Pay for ticket insurance if the tickets are not very cheap.
—Book your restaurants and museums, but don't worry about calling to cancel; someone else will be glad to take your spot.
—Book your rental cars if you think you might need one. They are less available (and more expensive) now, and you don't pay till you show, so better to have and cancel than the other way around.
—Waste is a part of life: Don't be a senseless stickler. If you didn’t use tickets because, for example, you simply preferred or needed to do something else (like nap or read or exist or breathe), keep in perspective your cost-benefit analysis as you go along!
II. COVID PREP
While it's right to over-prepare regarding any potential COVID hiccups, the experience of traveling during a global pandemic was less overwhelming than anticipated. Like anything hard to imagine, such as travel before cell phones for example, it's challenging to envision what you don't know. But one of the things travel does is quickly teach new normals.
Tips to stay COVID calm:
Keep originals, paper copies, and electronic photos of your family's vaccine cards and any recent negative tests on your phone and in your email.
Because COVID-related advice is ever changing:
—Stay abreast of your host country’s embassy and your airline’s information about the rules where you are going, and know they could change.
—At least when it comes to France and Spain, find a favorite pharmacy, and get into a routine of testing (likely paying to test, 25 euros as foreigners in the case of France) every three days to keep the QR code current that you will be asked to show in public spaces.
III. ACING YOUR AIRBNB
Inspired by a friend who has the Midas touch at choosing Airbnbs, I decided that, on my budget, I would do my best to find homes of creativity, character, and flair. Coming from 900 square feet in New York, I don’t have the suburban problem of expecting space, so studios or one-bedrooms more than suffice.
My best strategy involved looking for signs of design, that the host cares about beauty; it will tell you something about their character and is also a good indicator of everything you can’t see in the photos. If something looks very well-designed, it might well be quality, too.
My Airbnb Wins
- Barcelona Sweet Inn: Design and location
- Banyuls-sur-Mer: Beauty on the sea
- Aix-en-Provence I: Design and location
- Aix-en-Provence II: Design and location
Test your host communications. Nowadays a good Airbnb host or host company will be in touch with you right after booking and/or as your reservation approaches. Before booking or it's too late to cancel, test the communications and response time. The number one thing to avoid when traveling is being left high-and-dry due to any externality—getting locked out, a broken washing machine, a personal emergency—and being unable to reach your host or not swiftly hearing back from them.
My Sea Green Editor and Maisonette SteamLines right at home at the Airbnb above Gallifet Art Center in Aix-en-Provence.
IV: SU CASA MI CASA—Leaving it like you found it
The lifestyle of Airbnb is a wonderful way to enhance your sense of cultural immersion. In addition to kitchens, washing machines, and more space (my three reasons for picking Aribnbs over hotels), there is a human connection formed by staying in another's home, by being closer to equals with your host, by being entitled, frankly, to less.
My Favorite Airbnb Practices
Leave your Leftovers! Okay, not your dinner leftovers, but your olive oil and honey and salt, etc. Not only is this a real help and less wasteful, it’s a kind of unspoken chain of travel, a way paying it forward and connection between strangers who will likely never meet. It just feels good.
Play Guest: Why not clean up as if you were a (nonpaying) guest in someone's home? When packing up, I got into the habit of leaving my hosts or cleaning teams with the least possible to do. Not only is it humanizing to take care of your own refuse rather than make a stranger empty your wastebins, it’s also a great way to make sure you don’t forget anything! Doing a basic tidy-up, I often found something I would have forgotten! (think children’s brand-new swimsuits hiding under towels!) My hosts were also grateful for this, deepening our bonds.
Give Feedback: Rather than leave a bad taste in your mouth (or a bad review unless necessary), kindly let your host know anything that surprised or disappointed you. Not only might they be able to rectify it for the next person, they can update their communications to everyone's gain. Knowledge is power!
"The magic recipe for making substantive progress in a foreign language is a technical base (which you can get from school or a book or an app) followed by total nonnegotiable language immersion."
V. LANGUAGE IMMERSION
So many adults I meet crave learning another language and/or want it for their children. At 19 I was lucky enough to discover that the magic recipe for making substantive progress in a foreign language is a technical base (which you can get from school or a book or an app) followed by total nonnegotiable language immersion. The longer the better, but even after a week or so—if you force yourself to work around your English to express yourself—you will start to glue together the skeleton of a language then start putting meat on the bones. My kids and I did this on our 48 jet-lagged hours in Barcelona, and I was reminded that making baby steps in a foreign language is one of life’s greatest thrills.
Phrases that will Take You Far
Even if you are not aspiring to learn a given language, in terms of being a great traveler, a few phrases will take you far:
—The power of the conditional: "I would like," "may I have." It would be so easy to not hear yourself in another language phrasing things a way you never would in English. Make sure you learn to say "I would like" instead of "I want" and "may" in lieu of "can."
—Thank you very much/for everything: It never hurts to double down on gratitude when on another's turf.
—The Basics: The following are quite obvious, but as a basic checklist for visiting any country, even those where English is widely known, the gesture of mustering these most basic of terms demonstrates an effort and interest that will set you apart, planting the seeds of cultural connections.
—You’re welcome/It was nothing/It was my pleasure
—Hello at various times of day
—Good-bye at various times of day
—I’m sorry (It's very good to have a ready "sorry reflex" to defuse any potential tension, which can be easier to create around unwitting cultural missteps.)
—We are going to____________.
—Do you speak English? (An elegant formality before making assumptions)
—I'm sorry, I don’t speak _____________ (An obvious nicety when failing to communicate that can calm any tense moments being lost in translation)
—My name is/What is your name?
—I’m from_____________/Where are you from?
Tip: Get in the habit of using you Google Translation app to fill in gaps where you are missing the conjugation, verb, or noun. Don't let one missing piece hold you back. A sly sneak peek at your app and the next thing you know, you have a sentence!
VI. MY REVELATORY TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
The amount of travel and packing advice out there is overwhelming. Let me add my favorites to the mix, knowing that I was traveling solo with children, working, and attempting to train for a marathon while on our trip. In my case, traveling light, staying connected, and being hands-free truly were essential.
- 3-port power bank: Your power bank is money in the bank. It's worth the extra purse heft to have a good one, as most travel days out of the house are long and draining—of all batteries, that is!
- Bandolier Hailey + AirPod clip-on pouch: While wearing your phone like jewelry may not appeal to everyone, and there are downsides from getting it trapped under layers to dipping it in bodies of water, there's no denying the life-changing aid of Bandolier's lanyard-cum-wallet phone (and now AirPod) cases when you need to be hands-free and access everything from your communications to your camera, boarding passes, and all manner of cards. I am less likely to lose (or wash) my AirPods when they are clipped in place, and I even hooked on my house keys to minimize the risk of losing them.
- Patagonia jumpsuit: I can't say enough about this miracle of design and fleetwith fabric that is figure flattering and lives up to heels and dangly earrings while also being able to be sweated, slept, or even swum in as needed. So light you can't overheat, add layers you won't even freeze in flight.
- AeroPress: SteamLine founder Sara Banks introduced her team to portable coffee's one and only best friend. After picking up Nespresso capsules and dissolving Nescafe between my homes' various devices (or lack thereof), I finally tracked down an AeroPress and my morning woes were gone.
- Wifi Dongle: Who knew (I didn't) that a remedy to atrocious wifi could be in the palm of your hand. Long dependent on connecting through my phone in duress, I remembered the hard way that old homes in ancient cities with poor wifi often also have poor cell service. This dongle saved me.
- Travel adapter: Go the all-in-one route to take out any guesswork.
- Canon Ivy Mini Printer + Film: This tiny printer is a valid packing extra. A friend gifted it to me before leaving in a touching gesture that turned out to be a true joy trigger. While the expensive film raises your printing stakes, the limitation makes your choices matter more, and with kids of all ages using real photos to mark favorite memories or inspired snaps makes this a most charming and doable addition to even the leanest travel trousseau.
- J.Crew packable hat: SteamLine hatboxes let you travel with your best hats (and more) in the highest style. I also like a packable hat for ease when needed, and so I can use my hatbox as a purse when desired.
- Running sunglasses: These Rōka gasses are the most attractive and sports-functional I have ever found after years of looking. Especially if you wear glasses and contacts like me, the last thing you need is to carry more than one pair of sunglasses to cover fashion and sports. Multitasking is the thing.
- The perfect tote: While I hate to pair my SteamLines with anything less than stunning, for me the nylon tote has been the only way to turn one single tote bag into a beach bag, diaper bag carryall that can somehow Mary Poppins style hold insane amounts without ripping apart or cutting into my shoulder. My travel realities with children in mind, there is really no other way.
- Havaianas Luna: Flip-flops for grown-ups, the Luna design's back strap keeps you from announcing your arrival with an obnoxious flop while adding a dressy touch—Greek sandal style to boot!
- Collapsible Backpack: This affordable nearly weightless and indestructible backpack folds up into a pouch, making it your ultimate spare bag for the unexpected extras or messy items that travel presents.
- Best collapsible water bottle: One of travel's biggest pain points is causing any excessive waste you'd be opposed to at home. Single-use bottles might be the biggest offender here, as the need to stay hydrated and cool comes up constantly when traveling hot regions and walking thousands of steps.
VII. DINING & DIRECTIONS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
So much is infinitely easier with the internet and GPS, it would be hard to earnestly pine for the past. With this said, the travel sweet spot is using tech and analog in tandem to make the best decisions, get where you are going, and maximize your experience.
—Use a map in partnership with your GPS. You will not get to know the place you are in if you just use GPS. Not only will you be chronically looking down at your advancing steps and be waiting to be told what to do rather than reading street signs, you will bypass landmarks and lose your sense of place. Maps are spacial and they can also be marked-up to help you plan and record your adventure.
—While we look for many things while traveling—museums, stores, tennis courts, beaches—the one thing we look for most is restaurants. With the power of online marketing and the glut of reviews, in places with any tourism, it can be downright impossible to make your dining decisions—and to nail them. And recommendations from your hosts and locals can also disappoint: everyone is different, and places change (i.e., decline), so recs can be dated.
My advice is to do a combination of online research and local recon then plan on booking or going by a couple of places (in time before getting hangry). Then trust your gut and be willing to say no thanks and go try the next on your list. The bird in the hand is tempting and can be well enough, but if you care about dining well, remember to take your research with a grain of salt.
Courtney Halverson of @prettylittlefawn with The Diplomat
VIII. STAYING CONNECTED: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
Part of travel is disconnecting, but part of how MUCH we want to travel and our new culture of remote work might mean you can’t always have your cake and eat it, too. So you might have to stay connected or power on, and at the very least you want to be flexible and intentional, both of which being well set up allow.
If personally or professionally you want to stay connected, my main tips are:
—International cell service. It is worth it to pay for unlimited cellular data service abroad; whatever the cost (within reason), it is infinitely better than a panic attack when you either A) can’t get online or B) realize your kid has been hotspotting the entire busride to Montreal, for example, and you get hit with a $700 bill that you have to beg to halve, if you are lucky. Yes this happened to me two years ago, so the last few times I’ve left the country I’ve gotten the same plan abroad as at home.
—Get a wifi dongle. Old towns have old problems, like internet-proof apartments that ward off cellular data and wifi, so even connecting through your phone might not work.
—Power up. Keep your power bank(s) charged, and always pop one in your bag (with a cord!) before heading out.
IX. MONEY: THERE ARE SOME THINGS AMEX CAN’T BUY
A few words of financial advice:
No AmEx? I had forgotten that most places in France don’t take AmEx because of their fees, which must not bother American Express. Make sure you have a VISA or MASTERCARD with you as emergency backup.
Contactless Cards: Make sure your VISA or MASTERCARD is contactless! From the bus (important!) to vending machines (less so until your kid has a tantrum) to—get this—some PUBLIC BATHROOMS!!!, many automated machines only take contactless cards!
ATM Fees: I completely forgot about the hit the high-percentage fees on top of any bank cash withdrawal. Your best, albeit uncomfortable, bet is to travel with the amount of cash you foresee spending and to exchange it into your local currency at a bank.
X. BE EASY ON YOURSELF
It's a fun challenge to try to nail your trip every step of the way, but making no mistakes might mean you did not take enough risks or lose yourself in enough moments. Traveling solo with kids, I had to make sure my margin for error was very low, but I made a couple mistakes and one relative biggie, namely forgetting my train (from Banyuls-sur-Mer to Arles) had a transfer and ending up going in the wrong direction! This could have been a large pain but ended up being a small panic (jumping off in a small town) that led to an even better outcome: an Uber that got us door to door. Initially costly, the same driver ended up transporting us from Arles to Aix two days later, which turned out to be cheaper and far easier than the four train tickets I'd planned on. Of course I beat myself up and shuddered to think how much worse it could have been (stranded with kids and bags!), but the troubleshooting and positive outcomes were an adrenaline rush that also became one of the fun stories of our trip.
Even mistakes that don't turn out so well are part of Hermes' divine plan for your perfectly imperfect trip, an adventure that only you could have designed.
My six-year-old Cordelia with her Annie Atkins adorned Maisonette at the Nord-Pinus in Arles, France.