I went to Cancun and brought Prague, Hawaii, Brussels and Greece with me!!

I finally made it back home from Cancun and I’m already missing the warm sunshine, gorgeous aqua waters and bright green landscape. Here in Chicago the normal winter color palette consists of either white (snow), grey (old snow) or black (really dirty snow) so it was quite a fresh change to see all those beautiful colors for a week. As soon as I got off the plane I was hit with a wonderful “Welcome Home” from Chicago – negative degree weather! Thanks Chicago…

My trip started off at O’hare airport, looking out at all those typical winter colors and counting down the minutes until boarding began. Of course the inevitable happened when my coworker arrived at the gate and looked at me…and then my carry-on suitcase…and then back at me.

“That’s all you brought??”

“Yep! I always bring a carry-on. If I forget something, I can buy it there.  It’s the only way to travel!”

He obviously didn’t read #4 on my 14 travel tips for 2014 – There is only one size luggage for 2014 and it’s called Carry-On. No excuses. What he also didn’t know was that I managed to pack not only my Cancun necessities, but some items from Prague, Hawaii, Brussels AND Greece!! All in my not so fancy carry-on!! Let me explain a little more on why and how I was about to accomplish this amazing feat.

If you remember in my post “Pick one souvenir, and stick with it“, when I travel I don’t spend a lot of money on nonsense items and souvenirs. I stick to ornaments and then decorate my pretty Christmas tree during the holidays. However, there are always exceptions to rules and this is one of them. If you find something you LOVE and know you will USE it, then buy it. I don’t like “stuff” and I don’t like dragging a large amount of goodies with me when I’m traveling from city to city, so if I pick up something it has to be useful and special. When deciding what to pack for Cancun I came across some travel items, from all over the world, that I thought would be useful and not take up too much space! Here’s what I brought:

1. Prague – I’m obsessed with chapstick and always make sure I have some within my nearest reach. Since my sister and I did a Beer Tour in Prague, I thought it only made sense that I purchase beer chapstick from Czech Beer Cosmetics company! I came across this store randomly on the way back to the hotel and brought home lip balm for all of my friends. I normally don’t bring too many gifts home, but these were inexpensive and small so they hardly took up space in my carry-on. Since I purchased over 10 small items, they threw in Beer Shampoo too! My remaining showers in Eastern Europe improved instantly!

Czech Beer Lip Balm

Czech Beer Lip Balm

2. Hawaii – Any part of a beach trip, in my opinion, requires a sarong! They don’t take up too much space and are the perfect cover-up because you can wear them in all sorts of different ways. My favorite sarong was actually a gift from one of my close friends who used to live in Hawaii. Every time I see the bright pink and red flowers, I remember that moment that she gave this to me. It’s such a simple gift that will be used over and over again! On the trip to Cancun, I used it as a beach towel and it was perfect.

Sarong from Hawaii

Sarong from Hawaii

3. Brussels – This next item was also a gift, but this time from my sister. In 2013, my sister traveled to Brussels and had to make the obvious stop to see the little peeing man, otherwise known as the Brussels landmark – Manneken Pis. What she didn’t realize was that there was a whole museum dedicated to this little man’s clothes! There’s actually over 800 different outfits that have been dedicated from countries all around the world. I wouldn’t say that this was on her “to-do” list, but it definitely would have been on mine so that’s why she backtracked and went. She brought me back a deck of playing cards that I like to take on my trips in case I have some downtime. Easy to store so in the carry-on they went!

Manneken Pis playing cards from Brussels

Manneken Pis playing cards from Brussels

4. Greece – My close friend and I visited Greece in October 2013 and had the most relaxing week of stuffing our faces with seafood, watching the Santorini sunsets and laying on the beach. On our last day we took the ferry back to Athens in hopes of seeing the Acropolis. After what seemed like an episode from “The Amazing Race,” we arrive in Athens and found the Acropolis closed. We were so disappointed, but determined to get the only other thing on our Athens list crossed off – Visiting the Poet Sandal Maker. We raced to the shop and hesitantly went down a dark alley in hopes of the famous man who has designed sandals for celebrities such as John Lennon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jackie Kennedy, and Sophia Loren. We quickly picked out a few pairs and on our way we went! Since i knew I was going to get some beach time in, I packed them in the carry-on!

Sandals from Greece

Sandals from Greece

What are some of your favorite items you like to pack for vacation?

Bring in the New Year with 14 Travel Tips for 2014!

In only a matter of hours we’re going to be celebrating a brand new year, 2014! I’m hoping that most of you were savvy enough to put “Travel more” as your #1 New Year’s Resolution! If you didn’t…there’s still time to squeeze this one ahead of your boring very important “Get Fit/Get Healthy” goal. “Travel more” could mean getting into your car and driving a few hours to check out a new city or, it could mean booking the next flight out of town and exploring a country you’ve never been to. Either way, go explore and use these tips to be a smarter traveler!

This one’s a little long so go grab that bottle of champagne, sit back and enjoy! Cheers to 2014!

#14. Even if you’re a dude, start “pinning” through Pinterest…like now. 

Pinterest isn’t just for girls who want new cooking recipes or the latest fashion and home ideas. Ok fine, I’m lying, it’s TOTALLY for girls who want these things and it’s the best, most addicting site ever!! Phew, had to get that off my chest. Ok, to be more rational…the site is for everyone! My favorite page is the travel section where you can get a TON of ideas on where to travel next if you’re completely lost. If you need some inspiration, check out my ThreeLittleBirdsTravel Pinterest page!

#13. Put the iPhone down and invest in a quality camera.

I don’t like to over pack for trips which would lead one to believe I would just take pictures from my phone. WRONG. There are so many fun and interesting shots to take if you have a quality camera that doesn’t take up too much space. My go-to camera is the Sony RX100. It’s fairly small but takes amazing pictures just like a larger DSLR camera that no one ever wants to (or should) pack in their luggage.

#12. Get a credit card with NO foreign transaction fees. 

This is a life saver when you’re planning on putting most of your travel purchases on a credit card. The fees can be shocking when you come back to an enormous bill when all you wanted to buy were a few souvenirs! Here’s a helpful link through creditcard.com that will show you all your options.

#11. When riding the train, buy 2nd class and make sure its time stamped! 

There’s no need to pay extra for first class seats when, to most Americans, 2nd class is luxury enough! I promise you that just experiencing a High-speed train will make your day! Try and pre-book your tickets well in advance through either Eurail.com or RailEurope.com and your trip will go a lot smoother. Also, if you have an ticket without a specific time, make sure to time stamp it in the handy machines BEFORE you board the train. Not doing so will result in a hefty fine. You’ve been warned!!

#10. If you’re hungry and searching for a meal, DO NOT sit by the tourists who are wearing fanny packs and big white gym shoes. 

Do yourself a favor and RUN (with your non-white gym shoes) the other way as fast as you can! This is not your best choice for a meal. Look around, find the locals and stalk them. Yes, STALK THEM. They won’t care, I promise. They will almost always lead you to a traditional, authentic, less-expensive meal that will make you feel better than eating at an easy tourist trap restaurant.

#9. Pack emergency snacks….before you get to the airport! 

To avoid issues/concerns with tip #10, make sure to bring a few emergency snacks. I’m not talking about Garretts popcorn, Nuts on Clark or any other random bag of chips or cookies you grabbed at the airport.  Plan ahead and pick something relatively healthy and easy to pack. My go-to are KIND bars and they have saved me MANY times from just stopping at some crummy tourist-filled restaurant. Plus, if you have any “issues” with the local cusine, it’s nice to know you have something familiar that will settle your stomach.

#8. Here’s how to find the best rates for airfare. Period. 

A lot of people tell me that it’s “just easier to go through a travel agent.” While this may be true in some cases, it can be a drain on your finances when it’s simple to do this yourself. My go-to sites for airfare are skyscanner.com and kayak.com. Skyscanner.com offers you a handy calendar that allows you to check monthly pricing trends. Kayak.com is my favorite for multi-city traveling.

#7. Join TripAdvisor and become part of a growing travel community. 

Trying to decide on hotels or if a particular museum is worth your time? Check Tripadvisor! Planning effectively before your trip can save you a lot of time and money. What better way to get the real deal than through a trusted travel community? I use this site before EVERY trip and find the reviews to be extremely fair and helpful. When I return from a trip, I try and give back to the group and write as many reviews as I can (with pictures included!).

#6. The letter of the day is “M.” M is for Metro.

I’m lucky that I live in Chicago, which has a fantastic metro system called the “L.” Although I find it easy to navigate now, there was a long period of time when I was making frantic phone calls to my sister for help because I was turned around or lost. The metro can be intimidating, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar city or country. However, the truth is that the metro can be an excellent way to save money and navigate more efficiently, so it’s best to get comfortable with it. All metro systems are relatively the same and you can almost always find a handy print out before your trip to help you understand how to navigate.

#5. Apply for Global Entry (Bonus TSA Pre-Check included!)

When I’m ready to come home from a vacation, I’m ready. I want a home-cooked meal, I want to show my family pictures and share stories, and I want to see my pup Lilo ASAP. The one thing that’s standing in my way, always, is US customs. Good grief, could the line be any slower?!? Let’s all fix this right now by signing up for the Global Entry/TSA-Pre Check. It’s $100 for 5 years and it’s a relatively easy process. Done and done.

#4. There is only one size luggage for 2014 and it’s called Carry On. No excuses. 

This one will be really hard for most of you, but it pays off in the long run. For starters, have you ever checked your luggage to find out once you land, it’s lost? How about that time you boarded the European train and realized there was no space for your HUGE American size Samsonite and you had to keep it in the aisle for everyone to trip over, including the ticket collector? Or what about the endless stares you received from the locals when your enormous bags were clunking down the quiet-cobblestoned roads? I’ve experienced all three which is why now, I only travel with a carry on. Pack lightly and if you forget something, buy it there!

#3. Fulfill your dream of becoming a Travel Agent through EuropeanDestinations.com.

I love this site for so many reasons. Their pre-planned itineraries are affordable and their custom trip planning tool is like none other. Through the tool you can do multi-city planning all over Europe that includes flights, hotels, trains and ferries. Seriously, all in one tool!

#2. ‘Travelzoo Top 20’ emails will make you go poor, but sign up anyway! 

How do you navigate all the travel offers and travel savings out there? It’s simple, you sign up for Travelzoo’s Top 20 email. It’s your one-stop-shop for the best travel deals on the internet. Why should you have to do all the work to hunt for a great deal?

#1. Two words: Rick Steves

Took some time but we’ve finally reached the #1 Travel Tip for 2014…get to know who Rick Steves is. His books are the only travel guides that I’ll carry around with me because they are so unbelievably resourceful. My sister and I usually joke that he’s on the trips with us as in “Oh, Rick would say to turn down this road” or “Rick would really like this restaurant.” He’s kinda nerdy and his PBS videos are kinda outdated, but he’s also kinda amazing! Great maps and even better restaurant recommendations are followed by easy transportation instructions and handy hotel guides. You just can’t go wrong!

Learn something new? Share your favorite in the “Comments” or share your top Travel Tips with my readers!