10 hour airport layover teaches me: airport showers are awesome & often accessible

If you’ve never stepped foot in an airline lounge, you might not know that some of them have shower facilities. That isn’t very important for most of us who take the occasional domestic flight, but it can be a real game changer after a red eye or when laying over before an international long haul.

img_7364You don’t need a First Class ticket to use an airport shower facility, though you’re more likely to gain access for “free” if you spent a lot more for your ticket. At DFW, for example, the Minute Suites Terminal D location–a nap cubicle “hotel” past security in the airportalso sells shower passes with no private suite rental required.

Expect to pay around $30 to buy access to a fee-based airport shower facility, or around $50 per traveler if you’re purchasing access to an airline lounge like the American Airlines Admiral’s Club I used at DFW.

I probably wouldn’t have paid for a shower during my ten hour layover in July, but, having taken one in part to kill time after I’d visited every terminal and viewed all of the public art in DFW’s brochure, I would consider paying for a shower the next time I’m spending more than a few hours cooling my heels en route.

For me–an introvert with arthritis–I got about equal pleasure from two separate aspects of this experience. First, being totally alone in a room after hours of being in public. Second, the nice, warm shower itself, which always does some good at easing my joint pain.

DFW Terminal A Admiral’s Club shower

img_7366img_7367Can you ever feel really, REALLY unhappy when looking at a pile of fluffy white towels someone else has placed for your comfort and convenience? I can’t!

Everything you need comes with the key to the private shower room at the Admiral’s Club-DFW Terminal A location. Ask at the front desk to get access.

Shampoo, shower gel, Q-tips, and cotton balls are in place in the room, ready for your use. I used my own, of course, since sensitive skin is another fact of my life, but the products offered weren’t overly perfumed. This is a reasonably safe space/experience for those of us who get headaches from strong fragrances.

DFW Admiral Lounge AA shower - 1There were more towels than I needed, enough that I might ask, next time, for just what I would plan to use to save the water/energy of washing untouched linens. The space was quite scrupulously clean. There’s also a luggage rack to keep your suitcase above* the damp, and a hairdryer if you want it.

Since I was feeling quite well, I forgot to ask if there were accessible showers, but either they all are in this Admiral’s Lounge, or I just happened to get one that was. It had a fold down bench in the shower enclosure and an adjustable height hand shower wand in addition to the rain shower head. You won’t lose out on luxury if you just need grab bars sometimes, like me.

If you can’t stand at all, you might need to ask the staff to lower the hand shower to an appropriate height on your behalf. Mine was set way up at the top of its range when I walked in.

London Heathrow AA Arrivals Lounge shower

In addition to the Admiral’s Club shower at DFW, I took advantage of the same perks included with my First/Business ticket, purchased with Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles on AA, and visited the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge after retrieving my checked bag at London-Heathrow (LHR).

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 2LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 3

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower toiletries - 1Though without a doubt the more hygienically important shower I enjoyed during the trip, the Heathrow shower room was smaller, less well appointed with little extras, and decidedly not accessible. (Again, I failed to ask specifically for a stall equipped for mobility impairments, so this is what you get without asking for special treatment.)

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 1There was no luggage rack in the compact LHR Arrivals Lounge shower room, leaving me to wedge my full size carry on next to the sink on the lavatory counter itself. I had checked a mid-size rolling suitcase, which you can see standing on the floor beneath the counter and blocking the exit door in my photo.

Perhaps there was luggage storage somewhere else for those who pack heavily, because there certainly wasn’t space in the shower room for large checked bags!

It was as clean as you would expect, however, and made the transition from night flight to the Tube less stressful than it might have been in spite of temps in the 90’s on London’s non-air-conditioned subway cars.

 

Dublin, Ireland 51st & Green Lounge shower

Upon my return from the United Kingdom to the USA, laying over at Dublin (DUB) airport, the 51st & Green Lounge, post security, was free for USA-bound Business and First Class customers, but accessible to anyone willing to pay the €39 entrance fee.

DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green shower - 1Shower use is included in the price, but there is just one accessible stall available, and it is combined with the only wheelchair accessible toilet in the space.

img_7478 This accessible bathroom/shower—also serving as the sole baby changing space— is in a different area than the main restrooms, also off the main entrance hallway but a bit further along from the front door. Thankfully, this made it a bit closer to the lounge’s seating areas. The primary restrooms felt like a real trek as my arthritis acted up during my wait.DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green showers - 1

Knowing that no other handicapped toilets were available if I opted to use the shower made someone with generally good mobility like me hesitate to even consider taking one, though I was having noticeable symptoms even before my nine hour flight home and the hot water might have felt good. There was another passenger in the lounge who appeared to be confined to a wheelchair when I was there, reinforcing my feeling that taking an unnecessary shower would be a bit selfish.

The standard shower room looked reasonably spacious for my purposes, but it didn’t have a safety hand rail. With a knee acting up that day, it didn’t seem worth taking a risk.

Fortunately, it was neither a blazing heat wave such as I suffered in London, nor a double digit hours layover like my time in Dallas, so foregoing a test of the 51st & Green shower facilities an hour after I’d left my Irish hotel was no real sacrifice, except to my ability to share the experience with readers here. There are few reviews of this particular shower, but most USA bound flights from Ireland leave in the morning, so perhaps the demand is simply low, and a single stall is adequate.

The 51st & Green Lounge was lovely, very new, and everything else was to a high standard, though, leading me to expect the showers would measure up.

*Though the shower drained properly and no water spilled out of the enclosure or anywhere near my luggage, I would advise travelers to always assume the worst with unknown plumbing and place all belongings somewhere high and dry, just in case.

I thought I was going to see a man laden with bags die in front of me on the London Underground. Ugh! 

Take advantage of services offered: treat yourself like a friend

Using myself as an object lesson once again, I’ll remind anyone with a less than perfectly functioning self to make use of the services that are offered to you. More than that, be proactive, and request what you need.

It’s amazing how many ways there are to make the trials of modern travel easier, but also amazing how loathe some of us can be to ask for help.

Today’s case in point: having a difficult joint act up while waiting in the Dublin Airport 51st & Green airside (past security) Lounge. This is a lovely, bright airport lounge. There are quite a few worse places to pass a few hours. Its design, meant to evoke the Neolithic tomb Newgrange, immediately made both myself and my husband think of 2001: A Space Odyssey when we (on separate occasions) entered.

Evocative–and attractive–as the long, white entry corridor is, it’s enough to strike fear into the heart (or knee, foot, hip) of an individual struggling to walk without pain. The toilets are 2/3 of the way down, back by the reception desk. Sigh.

I thought about going to ask for a wheelchair escort when the pain struck, then sat down, determined to ignore yet another annoying infirmity. Then I had this thought: if my husband were here, he would demand help for me, because he thinks I deserve it. And he’s right!

If I were watching a loved one struggle with pain, even mild pain, I would seek help, and I would insist s/he make use of it. Why should I do any less for myself?

Am I suggesting that I’m the center of the Universe, that everything revolves around me and my needs? Well, no. But I would argue that treating myself as less than I would a friend or casual acquaintance isn’t brave or valiant, it’s unloving and unwise.

Self advocacy doesn’t equate to self indulgence.

Early arrival to Iceland’s KEF (Reykjavik) airport should be followed by a trip to the pool

Flights from the USA to Iceland typically arrive at KEF very early in the morning.

Though KEF is often referred to as “Reykjavik” airport for marketing purposes, it is actually 45 minutes outside the capital in the city of Keflavik. There is a smaller city airport that handles short flights from Reykjavik proper, but that is irrelevant to most international visitors except, perhaps, those from Greenland.

“Very early” on my two flights to Iceland meant before 6 am. At least in June unlike March, this was after sunrise.

Food & transport from the airport

KEF is a fairly nice airport. It is modern and well designed. Though it could use more water bottle filler fountains. Iceland, however, is a tiny island nation with a population of just a few hundred thousand people.

Keflavik isn’t New York City. This isn’t a 24 hour kind of town. Even Reykjavik itself, where the majority of the nation’s citizens live, doesn’t offer too much for the tourist before 8 or 9 am.

Sporty types who don’t suffer jet lag so badly could take a lovely walk or hike. Nature, in June, is open 20+ hours per day.

The wrong way to arrive: witless & unprepared

On our first visit, the kids and I rode the FlyBus from the airport to our hotel. Naturally, our room wasn’t ready yet just past 8:00. After all, typical check in times are in the early afternoon.

We sat in the lobby staring dumbly at the poor receptionist, and she did get us into our room by about 9:30 am. It was a miserable first couple of hours in a new place, however.

Icelandic pastry

A typical Icelandic pastry, according to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor

The kids were too tired to even go in search of pastries when the receptionist suggested a bakery nearby!

Better alternative: ready to meet bodily needs

Having a much better idea of what to expect upon arrival, I planned more wisely for our second trip to Iceland. Of course, it helped that it was just me and my now teenaged son. He’s reached a stage of offering more help than he requires, especially when it comes to schlepping heavy luggage about.

I was going to rely upon public transit options again, but decided on a rental car at the last minute.

We could have reached a public pool via mass transit and reasonable walks, but it would have been one nearer our lodging and after taking the FlyBus away from the airport.

Rental car freedom

The forecast called for chilly days (in the low 40’s F) and plenty of clouds and rain… in mid June.

There was also a museum I’d wished to visit on the first go ’round that remained just as difficult to access without a car. It was so tantalizingly close to the airport… but the city bus only ran from there back to Hafnarfjördur and Reykjavik every two hours. Missing it would mean a very expensive taxi ride, in the ballpark of the auto rental cost, or an unacceptably long wait.

If I found myself so exhausted from the flight that I couldn’t drive safely, I determined we would nap in the car for an hour or so before leaving the grounds of the airport. I felt better having a backup plan in place, even one in which I felt like a bit of a vagabond.

Even if you dislike driving a strange car in a foreign country, it is pretty manageable in Iceland. Traffic is light, eliminating the thing I hate most about driving near my suburban home in the USA.

Icelandic drivers rank, en masse, somewhere in the middle of the pack I’ve experienced worldwide for road manners; they aren’t as courteous as Oregonians, but behave less aggressively than New Yorkers. There’s none of the insanity of Rome or Israel.

While road signs are in Icelandic and can throw you for a loop, most turns on major roads are roundabouts, so you can just keep circling while your child navigator figures out the way, or rely upon the GPS who will mangle the Icelandic language for all s/he/it is worth so you can enjoy a good laugh while you are circling the rotary for the fourth time.

Between Iceland’s major airport and capital, road conditions are good. Consider that “possible weather events excepted,” of course, but, even in Iceland, those are somewhat less risky in June.

Breakfast at KEF: not many options

I’d already determined from my online research that buying an espresso and sandwich or pastry on site before heading out would be our likeliest spot for a very early breakfast. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts branded cafe after customs at KEF arrivals, co-located with a convenience store.

Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t open until 8:00. The people of New England will be outraged when they learn of this. Dunkin’ Donuts is bizarrely popular where I live.

Joe & the Juice was doing a brisk business, though, and it was also quite near the car rental kiosks. A turkey and pesto sandwich (hold the mozzarella for DS’s lactose intolerance) helped kick start our groggy metabolisms. Yeah, the espresso helped a bit, too! A packaged caramel muffin proved a necessary adjunct for the voracious teen.

The museum was only 15 minutes or so from KEF, but it didn’t open until 8 am. Even taking our tiiiiiiiiime at the airport, we would be at least an hour earlier than the door opened. Plus, I knew I’d feel grungy and sore after sleeping in a cramped Icelandair Economy seat.

Note: the seats have really gone downhill on Icelandair between Boston and Keflavik. I think this was the worst seat I’ve ever had for legroom. I was disappointed, remembering this otherwise nice airline as much, much better a few years ago!

Does jet lag wash off?

The solution was the local pool, Reykjanes Swimming Center/Waterworld. It was only about ten minutes from the airport, and that includes time spent driving around a construction project that barred the GPS’s suggested route. Note: this is easy driving, too, with very light traffic. I hate using rental cars, but hardly minded it, even jet lagged, stiff and sore, and in a city I’d never visited before.

Americans, take note: this is more like your local YMCA pool than the “Waterworld” name might imply. Yes, there is one waterslide and a children’s activity room indoors, but both of those were closed during our 7 am visit. The facilities were quite nice and up to date, but nothing like a theme park.

There are a few major benefits to hitting the pool first thing. For me, having a chance to wash my hair before sightseeing was a big one. My morning shower is an integral part of my waking up ritual. It helps me to feel like myself.

Next in importance to me is having somewhere to go before I can check in to my hotel anyway. I’m not a skulker or “see what I can get away with” kind of a person. I’m careful and rule abiding. I don’t want to nap by the side of the road or in an airport, but I’m also not up to much more than a good nap after a night flight.

Visiting an Icelandic city pool offers a great insight into what regular, everyday life is like for people here. It isn’t just hardcore lap swimmers and toddlers taking lessons like I’d see on a weekday morning at my local YMCA. Icelanders are socializing and meeting up in the water.

There were more retirees represented than any other age group at this hour and in this neighborhood, though.

The abundance of cheap geothermal energy from the volcanic activity underfoot means outdoor pools are heated to comfortable temperatures no matter how cold the air temperature is that day. In addition to a moderately warm heated pool (cooler on the lap swimming side), there have been multiple hot tubs (locally translated as “hot pots”) at each facility I’ve visited as well.

Waterworld had three: 36-39 C in both shallow and deep varieties and 41-43 C with the deeper sitting depth.

I believe there was also a cold plunge pool, but the object I guessed to be such wasn’t labeled with a sign and there was no temperature posted to help me confirm my guess. One guy climbed into whatever that was, however.

Having traveled with so much discomfort up front that I failed to raise my arms high enough for the TSA cancer inducer body scanner to clear me as a terrorist threat, I was less than limber upon arrival. I spent every minute past the safety briefing of my too-short-for-a-night’s-sleep five hour flight in fitful sleep, but it wasn’t restorative. I struggled to reach my feet for the required soapy shower before going into an Icelandic pool.

At that point, the hot pots offered unmitigated bliss.

While our two night stopover in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland, was designed primarily to ease my travel related pain and jet lag (i.e., it wasn’t intense or highly scheduled), I do believe that hitting the pools provided a soothing balm to both of these maladies.

Warm water is obviously going to ease joint pain. So does reducing one’s experience of gravity due to buoyancy, of course. But the effect upon jet lag was just as profound and somewhat less expected. I suppose the combination of light exercise and being outdoors under the sun in the morning explains most of it.

Read more about what foreigners should expect at an Icelandic public swimming pool, especially for those of us with mild mobility impairments who wonder about handicapped or otherwise accessible accommodations in the facilities.

Have Segway; will travel… into the Alps

My first Segway tour of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was a lot of fun and well worth the fairly high hourly cost. My second Segway tour, along an Alpine trail from the Austrian resort town Seefeld in Tirol, was positively magnificent.

At €78 per person for a two hour tour, the cost of entry was lower. With the option to follow a scenic trail to a kitschy-charming Alpine inn otherwise closed to me due to pain and fatigue, the experience turned out to be invaluable.

Training to use Segway

Segway training before a tour takes between five and 20 minutes

My teen said this excursion was the most fun thing he did during our two weeks in Europe. And, by the way, I let him select most of our activities after I chose the cities we would visit.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell the friendly owner-operator Maximilian this, but I would have paid a lot more for such a wonderful experience. If you find yourself in Seefeld, definitely give him a call and take one of his Segway scooters for a spin!

I discovered Segway Tirol on TripAdvisor, but here’s the website and contact email: info@segway-tirol.info *

I’m extolling the virtues of the Segway today because I live with chronic pain as part and parcel of an autoimmune condition. Aside from arthritis, I also broke a bone in the sole of one foot many years ago… and now it feels like I’m always walking with a pebble in my shoe. I.e., annoying

Before my foot injury, my major occupation when visiting new places was to wander. I could happily lose myself for hours along the twisting byways of an historic city. I don’t enjoy driving, and I hate doing it in an unfamiliar, crowded place.

Public transit is hit and miss for me. I’ll use it, but unfamiliar fare systems provoke anxiety. Did I stamp my ticket correctly? Do I have exact change? With buses, I fear taking the wrong line; on subways, I compulsively check the map at each stop to confirm I’ve headed in the correct direction.

I also fear not getting a seat and falling down on lurching trains and buses. At times—sometimes unexpectedly—my weak hand and wrist joints won’t cooperate with my clinging to a post. Then again, I don’t appear deserving of special treatment or priority seating. Autoimmune conditions are often invisible to the casual glances of strangers.

I prefer the freedom and pace of walking… but I can’t go very far by foot any more.

Riding a Segway scooter does require one to stand. It wouldn’t be suitable for anyone with major foot or knee, or ankle problems. My pain seems to be exacerbated by the striking motion of stepping, however, so standing on the Segway is pretty much all right, most of the time.

I do have days where even my knees are affected by my arthritis, but most of my issues, most often, involve the small joints in my hands and feet. I wouldn’t try to ride a Segway if I were having a major flare, but the fatigue would probably stop me before joint stiffness anyway.

Stepping aboard a Segway scooter is like stepping back to a healthier, more able time and condition for me. It feels like freedom.

Mobility is a key component of personal empowerment. That’s true for the ability to afford a car in many American suburbs, and even more so for the giant leap from total dependence upon others or being housebound to the liberty of self-conducted, autonomous activity for those who can’t walk in the average way.

You get a taste of the utility of curb cuts, ramps, and automatic doors as a parent pushing a baby stroller, but it is hard to appreciate all the little motions a healthy body allows until some aspect of “what’s typical” is removed from your arsenal.

I didn’t stop grinning for a single moment I was aboard Segway Tirol’s scooter. The scenery was beautiful. The guide was kind and accommodating. Mostly, though, I was exhilarated to be conducting myself along an Alpine path without pain or fear of going too far and then succumbing to fatigue in an inconvenient place.

Some people think Segways are goofy looking toys for nerds; others consider them a sidewalk nuisance that should be banned. I’d guess most of those people are fully physically able and have no idea how poor the options are for those who aren’t.

For myself, I will be spending more time on two low, gyroscopically balanced, electrically powered Segway wheels in the future. I will seek out tours and rentals of these stable, easily controlled mobility devices. I may look goofy, but I will be grinning like a fiend.

It’s hard not to be happy when you’ve been set free.

Around $150 pp for 90 minutes, if memory serves.

*I booked our tour just the day before we took it. Maximilian was quick to respond and very flexible. Our “group” was just the two of us. There was no upcharge for the creation of a tour at our convenience!

Accessibility notes by a visitor to Iceland’s awesome public pools with hints for proper locker room & swim protocol

Icelanders expect you to follow the letter of their law when going for a swim: wash, naked, with soap before entering a public pool or hot tub.

I’m shocked by how many Americans post comments about washing first not being required at home. Actually, at my local YMCA in New England, a sign clearly states that “soap showers are required” before entering the pool.

It’s just that, at American pools, nobody enforces the law.

We have laws against jaywalking, too, but you’d never know it in most cities based upon enforcement.

Also, our instructional posters are plain English language ones without the helpful “red zone” graphics employed in Iceland.

Cell phone or camera use isn’t allowed in locker rooms thank God! so I’ll point you to others’ mysteriously captured photos for illustrations. Follow the links to pool etiquette articles, below.

Picture the typical men’s room sign “guy” infographic, then add big red circles glowing around head, armpits, groin, hands, and feet. Those are the parts it is mandatory to wash with soap before entering an Icelandic public swimming pool or hot tub.

I’m reinventing the wheel here, but it bears repeating again! since every Icelander seems to know that Americans (and Brits) arrive unprepared for proper Icelandic pool protocol. I read about a dozen “how to use a public pool in Iceland” posts myself, and yet, here I am reiterating much of the same advice.

IHeartReykjavik.net posted my favorite for average travelers (make sure to read some of the 133+ comments); IcelandWithKids.com is also very thorough, especially with information for families and parents traveling with children.

Those posts helped me, so I hope to offer the same to another reader. Good travelers respect the places that they visit by following the rules.

Access for visitors with mild physical impairments to Icelandic pools

Another, perhaps less common, thing I want to address is accessibility in Icelandic public pool locker rooms.

I did find one blogger who writes about access from the perspective of a wheelchair user, but he only seemed to visit the swanky Blue Lagoon spa. For over $40 per person, it darn well better be fully accessible!

I was looking for an affordable, family-oriented experience more akin to what average Icelanders might enjoy with their own kids.

Also, my needs are far less intensive than those of a pool user who requires a lift (hoist) to access the water. I have arthritis and chronic pain due to an autoimmune condition. My accessibility needs are variable, but often minimal, and most relate to twisting and pushing with the hands.

Sometimes, however, hip or knee joint stiffness makes it hard for me to reach my own feet. Heck, I couldn’t get my arms high enough overhead (shoulder stiffness) for the requisite TSA scan when I departed from Boston the night before I visited my first Icelandic pool.

Some days, aside from morning stiffness in my fingers, I bend like a healthy person; other days, not so much. This is a big part of what drew me to the famous geothermal hot pots of Iceland during even a brief stopover.

When my joints are stiff, I’m also more prone to balance issues and potentially falling. My limbs don’t always respond the way I’m expecting to the commands sent from my brain.

I had questions before my first visit to a public pool in Iceland to which I couldn’t find answers online. I’ll try to enlighten those of you with similar concerns according to my own experience as an English speaking tourist with about two weeks’ experience in that country.

Continue reading

When I won’t give up my seat on a plane to a stranger’s child

It’s not all that uncommon for me to give up my assigned seat to a stranger on a plane. I do it for couples, not just for children separated from mothers. I try to take actions that make the world a slightly better place.

I’ve been that mom flying alone with her kids, feeling more than a little desperate to keep them close to me. I’ve carefully selected seats only to have my plans disrupted by the airline when an equipment change erases all the previous selections.

On a recent Icelandair flight from KEF to BRU, I made a selfish choice. When the flight attendant asked me if I would give up my window seat for a child, I said, “No.”

Though I think my reasons were valid, I’m clearly carrying some guilt from that decision. I hate to make a child sad. I enjoy most kids, even on airplanes, and am more likely to help out another mom than glare when her baby kicks up a fuss.

Major exception: when your kid is kicking my seat, I am just one step away from being annoyed, and I will turn around and ask you to stop him or her. Apologetic and helpful parents defuse all of my frustration… unless the kid is old enough to be doing it on purpose and seems inclined to keep it up.

Children are free agents, no matter how hard we try to remain diligent. I police my own kids pretty hard in that regard because, as a traveler with chronic pain, I am being literal when I say, “I feel your pain!”

On a bad day, a rhythmic seat kicking is torture for me. I won’t yell at you or your kid, but I will expect you to do your best to stop the behavior.

And this segue brings us around to my primary motivation for saying no to another mother on Flight 554. I was already in pain.

I select window seats on flights most of the time because I want to get as far away as possible from the jostling at the aisle. Never mind a direct hit by the beverage cart, even a pair of average sized passengers passing in the aisle can result in a brush with my side that hurts. I’ve been smacked more than once by people carelessly removing bags from the overhead bin, too.

I’m sitting in a window seat because I like the view, but even more to avoid actual pain from accidental touch.

I think that alone is sufficient justification for turning down a fellow passenger, though it obviously still makes me feel bad.

In this case, it is also worth mentioning that this was a mother with three kids who looked to be preteens and above. The child in question was probably 12 or more, standing shoulder high to her mother. She didn’t look frightened or upset to be separated from her mom, she looked bored. She had headphones on and didn’t seem to be talking to her family members anyway.

I pointed out that the middle seat in our row was free, even closer to her family across the aisle than mine by the window. I held firm to the fact that I needed to stay where I was to avoid being bumped by other passengers.

I don’t know where the girl ended up sitting, but it wasn’t in my row, though the rest of the family stayed put across the aisle.

If a woman with a toddler had been standing in the aisle with pleading eyes, I would have moved before I even thought to protect my own fragile state. This was at the mere beginning of a two week trip, no less, when preserving my energy was really important.

Some people think it is always obnoxious for any passenger to ask another to give up a seat. Nonsense! The airlines are operating a virtual free-for-all of Darwinian proportions at 30,000 feet. It is easy for even an experienced traveler to end up separated from children who really aren’t in a good position to care for themselves.

Others suggest that families should always be accommodated. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do believe that commercial airlines should be compelled by law to seat children under about age 12 or anyone with significant special needs adjacent to a caregiver before charging average passengers for the privilege of seats that suck less.

Airlines should profit less on seat selection. It costs them nothing compared with serving food, say, is a pure profit opportunity, and yet it creates real stress for groups traveling together. Unless paying for a reserved seat is an ironclad guarantee that I’m going to get exactly the seat and amenities I’ve selected–read the fine print, it usually is not a guarantee of anything but a charge to your credit card–then the system is a scam.

As a mom, if I can’t sit by my teen, I think, “Gee, too bad.” Then I return to my book. It’s no big deal.

When the situation is placement of my younger child who gets motion sick and has allergies and asthma, I work a little harder for a more satisfactory resolution. I suggest that I must be at least within sight of him lest he struggle with his breathing, though that situation is thankfully very rare.

I also tell whomever he’s seated next to that they might want to keep a barf bag ready, just in case. Maybe it’s just my family, but my kids tend to vomit on the person next to them at least as often as they get sick on themselves!

I’m totally honest with other airline passengers: my son doesn’t always throw up on a flight. It isn’t even most trips by airplane. Then again, he has vomited more than once due to turbulence.

Most passengers and/or flight attendants work together to help a parent find a better solution for a child with that kind of need. Though why the hell any passenger ever has to get involved is part of what makes me angry with the airlines: this is their problem to solve. It doesn’t belong to the poor soul who thought she’d reserved her favorite type of seat and would get to sit in it. Nor can a hapless parent who travels occasionally be expected to navigate the Byzantine world of airline chicanery.

Filing a complaint? No doubt there will soon be a $25 fee for that, too.

As my “more complicated to travel with” son nears the end of elementary school, however, even his “interesting” issues are less of a concern to me than they were with younger children in tow.

At this point, the kid might manage by himself to barf into a bag on his lap; when he was five, that chance was zero. I’m honestly uncertain as to what he would do with said bag once it was full of vomit unless I was there next to him to take it off his hands.

Parents should sit with their kids because this stuff happens, and no one cares as much as a child’s own parent. The parent isn’t trying to offload any responsibilities to other poorly placed passengers. Airline policies are simply inhumane and short-sighted.

It is patently obvious that this is not a black and white situation, but a matter of multiple shades of grey. Like most of life, actually, including whether or not a relatively nice person such as myself, a caring mother and lover of children, gives up her window seat to humor a pre-teen.

This time, I didn’t, but my conscious is clear. Well, mostly. After all, I did take the time to write this piece.

Craft a travel capsule wardrobe color coordinated with key accessories

An unexpectedly useful feature of my Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers—which usually boast one main and two contrasting colors—is as a guide for crafting well-coordinated travel capsule wardrobes.

Wardrobe quick August escape shoes - 1

Ahnu Sugarpine in soft blue, peridot, and coral mesh

It may be easier to stick to a neutral palette or always wear black, but my personal style is more ebullient. When you want to wear lots of color, and your outfit artfully combines three vibrant hues as shown on your shoe, you can look really pulled together* instead of clownlike.

I learned this trick as a crutch for home decorating: buy a beautiful patterned object or fabric first, then match paints to your well-designed piece instead of vice versa. It’s easier to get a certain shade of paint than an exact tone in a fabric, and often a lot cheaper, too. Every shade of paint costs about the same per gallon.

Why do I start with the shoes?

Along the same lines, since my choice for shoes is limited by practical circumstances, it is often much simpler to shop for the rest of my clothing to go with the footwear. A simple t-shirt or scarf in a particular shade is also much cheaper than a pair of shoes, and the color selection is almost always wider.

Living with chronic pain—specifically joint pain in the small joints like toes and a foot that once broke and healed funny—means I require custom orthotic inserts to take the pressure off the sensitive parts of my feet. These inserts demand to be worn with a supportive, enclosed shoe.

My podiatrist recommended New Balance sneakers, but I felt constantly sad when forced to wear them as my primary footwear.

I was always aware of my feet; they were blazing beacons of my infirmity. Most tennis shoes are so… sneakerish. Sporty ones made me feel like I was wearing a costume. Plain leather ones struck me as a weird joining of the geriatric with the athletic. They are not me.

Understand that I owned zero pairs of lace up athletic shoes from puberty through young adulthood. My leather walking shoes were Mephistos or Clarks and trended classic/European. After I had kids, I wore leather Merrell Encore mules because they slipped on faster.

None of these high quality brands have worked for me since my feet became problematic. In my old shoes, I can’t complete a trip in and out of the bank, say, without triggering pain that will bother me for days to come. I really must now wear a shoe with comfort features most often found in athletic styles.

Wedding shoes - 1

My wedding shoes were white leather ballet flats with purple ankle ribbons to match my bouquet

Before foot problems, when I dressed up, I wore simple ballet flats in nude, brown, or black. I wore white ones under my wedding gown. I have only rarely tolerated heels as it isn’t in my nature to accept pain for beauty.

I didn’t find self-expression through my shoes. I chose to draw attention closer to my face, hoping to draw the eye to where the brain makes me really interesting.

Anyway, that was the core of my style for most of my adult life.

Today, most of the time, and any time my feet are in pain, I wear Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers or boots.

Ahnu shoes sneakers

Ahnu Sugarpines: back row, waterproof; front row, mesh

I’ve got quite a few pairs now, even more than are shown in this photo from last year. I most often wear the five pairs on the right, especially when I travel. Either a neutral (grey or taupe) or colors found in a peacock feather (teal, yellowish green, purples) best suit my typical travel capsule wardrobe.

Though these particular sneakers suit my need for a flexible yet supportive shoe as dictated by my podiatrist, it is the joyful combination of the Sugarpine color schemes that makes them my favorite. If I’m going to wear a bulky athletic shoe, at least make it an exuberantly colorful one.

Travel capsule wardrobes inspired by Sugarpines

Following are examples of how I let my shoes direct the rest of my wardrobe.

This first is one complete outfit I chose to wear aboard a plane for a long flight. It emphasizes the purple in this often worn pair of waterproof Sugarpines. I have teal in both airy mesh and waterproof versions; I wear this color a lot.

travel outfit

Travel outfit to wear on plane: lightweight jeans, tank, cardigan, puffer vest, pashmina

This second combination pleases me best when paired with my peridot/acid green Sugarpines, but also works with the teal shoes shown above pretty well.

capsule wardrobe CA SF autumn - green wrap tops Twilly - 1My trusty teal Sugarpines have helped me coordinate outerwear, as well.

This woven straw Sunday Afternoons. special edition hat is a favorite for sunny summer travel in the city where a big brim is more of a museum/restaurant hindrance than protective shield against strong sun. They’re an Oregon company, to boot.

You can also see that I have both a lightweight down coat (purple, above) and a water shedding Duluth Trading Co soft shell† (teal, below) to literally. cover me for any kind of inclement weather during my travels.

And here’s a very different color scheme that I might employ when I want to be a little less vibrant during a journey. These Sugarpines were brand new, so I still had the box with the specific color name to share: Alder Bark, a.k.a., taupe.

I have a pair of Ecco boots in a similar taupe/mushroom color. While not something I could designate as a walking shoe at this stage of my life, they are sufficiently comfortable for me to wear them out to dinner or in other situations where I might prioritize style over support.

The Angelrox.gloves paired with the shoes are showing two of their colors: Cacoa and Nude. I’ve written at length about how much I love this woman owned, made in the USA clothing company in Maine for color coordinated, comfortable pieces. Combined with a few touches of vibrant Violet, this is a palette I’m just starting to explore for travel. No small part of it is my joy at having the boots to wear when sneakers aren’t appropriate!

Here’s a close up of Ahnu’s purplish rubber sole together with an Angelrox shawl peeping up at the bottom of the shot in the shade they call Violet. Those are the mesh Sugarpines in teal on the right.

shoes for capsule color coordination alder taupe Angelrox - 3

Though the wardrobes I’ve shown demonstrate very different levels of “energy” in terms of brightness and how aggressively I’m exerting my enjoyment of colorful clothes, a surprising number of accessories can bridge them both. For me—admittedly no fashion maven—it was beginning with my wardrobe of Ahnu Sugarpine shoes that guided me toward my now heavily traveled set of useful yet stylish accessories.

Of course, a favorite scarf or shawl—or an even more vital health related accessory like a wheelchair or walker—could represent one’s starting point. The key point I’m trying to make is to make the best of what you must keep about your person; if you’re fortunate enough to have a completely whole and healthy body, you get to enjoy the privilege of starting with anything you love.

My own grandmother employed a shiny, dark red walker toward the end of her life. It was a beautiful color, and, if I required such a device, I’m pretty sure I’d be shopping for accessories to complement it rather than trying to make the thing blend in.

Is there anything worse than drab, putty colored computer, medical, and office devices? Not in my world.

Color makes me happy. I believe that surrounding myself with the colors that I love improves my health, mentally, at least, and probably physically, too. Following your bliss can be taken both figuratively and literally.

Travel can also be stressful, no matter how much one loves it. One way I’ve found to focus on the joys of the journey is by making things pretty where I can. My bag feels just a little bit lighter over the miles when I love it and everything inside.

Colorful travels!

* A family friend exclaimed about this when I saw her during a recent visit home: “The lining of your bag even matches your outfit!”

Yes, yes it did. I’m tickled every time I pull that level of coordination off. It pleases me greatly. If I can even match my underwear to what’s on the outside, I feel like a downright fashion genius.

Hey, we all need hobbies. This happens to be one of mine.

I wore them happily enough for exercise! It’s a fine brand.

Once you’ve started gathering a travel wardrobe that adheres to a particular color scheme, it gets easier to snag deals on pieces you want or need when they’re available in your palette. My rain jacket was a closeout at about 50% off its retail price.

What I wore in New Zealand: summer capsule wardrobe for 10 days out of Christchurch

Nothing, not even living through the experience, will reconcile my mind to a summer capsule wardrobe for a February trip. That’s the reality of visiting the antipodes, however, and it was quite a treat to leave the wretched winter weather of New England for a respite in New Zealand, however brief.

Even 10 days is brief when you’ve flown 9,300 miles to get there!

NZ capsule wardrobe pictorial accessories - 1I planned a wardrobe for this trip,* and then, after some reflection, cut it back further to roughly what’s shown in the first image. As I traveled with it, I realized that it was, in fact, a tiny bit larger than it needed to be. I wore all but one miniscule garment that I carried, though, and we weren’t burdened with an unmanageable amount of stuff.

NZ Hagley Park me walkingMost important of all, I had what I needed to be comfortably dressed throughout the ten day trip. I’m a traveler with joint pain and an autoimmune condition who remains bound and determined to make it to more corners of the globe. Smart packing isn’t a hobby for me, it’s a necessity.

NZ capsule wardrobe - model tunic hatThe week before we arrived, our primary destination, Christchurch, baked in 90º+ F temperatures, but we had a cooler trend and the remnants of a cyclone to deal with. What I packed would have worked for either week’s weather, so it was a solid wardrobe plan.

Whether or not you choose to carry enough to cover last week’s weather as well as the forecast temperatures is a personal choice. I’m more comfortable being over- than underprepared, especially when setting a modest pace with no special events that demand tight connections or a particularly quick turnaround between destinations. Continue reading

Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.

 

Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.

 

This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

Continue reading

Rushing for life experiences when chronic illness fuels your fears

I’ve had the great fortune to travel regularly throughout my life.

I enjoyed those pivotal vacation experiences of a happy middle class childhood: a couple of trips to Disneyland and bragging rights about having flown on airplanes and crossed a national border or two, if only to near neighbors Mexico and Canada.

I attended college in a different region from Home. I flew cross country at least four times a year because of this one fact. I built my desire to see the world into my educational plans, and it worked out well for me.

I didn’t even mind long distance romances in my youth, because what could offer better motivation for frequent trips? I love having a journey coming up in my calendar.

Later, working as a software engineer, I had the privilege of visiting subcontractor sites in Denmark and Spain on my employer’s dime. At the same time, I was a single, adequately employed young adult during the roaring 1990’s before the dot.com bubble burst.

For as long as I’ve had the option, I’ve traveled regularly, and I’ve enjoyed most of it. I dream of “seeing the world.” I’ll be grateful for every corner that I reach.

Yet, in spite of all this to-ing and fro-ing, there has been a certain rhythm to my rambling. At my youthful peak, I was not a high energy traveler. As a middle aged mother with a couple of kids in tow, my pace is typically sedate, and I prioritize comfort and convenience over the heights of adventure.

Looking back over our family travels, a pattern emerges. Every few years, we’ve had a “grand adventure.” How grand is Grand has changed with our finances and family status, but it’s always been a cycle of plan, anticipate, then go.

Maybe Go! with a capital and an exclamation mark expresses it better.

“But lately something’s changed, it ain’t hard to define…”* Or, rather, it isn’t hard to unearth the cause of the shift. I’m scrambling. I’m rushing. I’m tumbling from one trip to another without enough time to fully digest each experience.

Some of my trips bump up hard enough against the next that I feel more overwhelmed than anticipatory.

I know why I’m doing it, too. I’m afraid.

I’ve been saying yes to one trip after another because I’m afraid it will be my last chance to travel before I’m sidelined by infirmity and pain. Continue reading