BY LYNNE STILLWELL
Over the course of the last six months, I’ve gone from never having ventured beyond the confines of the continental United States to earning two stamps on my brand spankin’ new passport. Now, fully infected with travel fever, I’ve scheduled four more overseas trips in the next year-and-a-half and continue to fine-tune my budget in hopes of adding more.
In reflecting on my travels thus far and looking forward to those which lie ahead, I compiled the following as a guide for those contemplating their own boundary-breaking journeys.
“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.”
While Walton was most assuredly talking about the individuals with whom one chooses to travel, I’ll assign the alternate meaning of the word here and offer that choosing the right travel company is every bit as important. When planning my first weeklong, adult, no-kids vacation I had some choices to make. Did I want to go it alone rather than booking with a group? And, if I went with a group, which one would be the best fit for me?
The first question was a no-brainer as I recognized as a newbie traveler I’d get more out of the experience if someone else did all the legwork. I had no experience researching and scheduling excursions. I didn’t know which resort had the best beach access and friendliest staff, so I decided to let the experts do their thing.
After that it became a matter of which experts to use and in making that decision, I did have some homework to do. Ultimately, after talking with friends and reading a bit online, I chose Sweet. First, the time and place for one of their upcoming trips were right for me, but more importantly, I liked what they were about. While many travel companies now claim to be green and/or promote community service in their travels, these concepts weren’t afterthoughts for Sweet, they were the founding principles. Their passion was evident on their website and the reviews of those who’d traveled with them previously were all I needed to seal the deal.
“He travels fastest who travels alone.”
One of the scariest aspects of traveling can be going solo; a prospect often faced by us single ladies. But rather than be intimidated by the possibility, embrace it. Don’t get me wrong, traveling with the woman you love and adore is clearly a fantastic proposition, but until she comes along keep living your life and enjoying the freedom afforded by your single status.
You want to stay in the pool and play volleyball all day? No one is going to stop you. You want to get up at the crack of dawn to tour the island via golf cart? There’s nobody holding you back. Rather than being intimidated by your lone stranger in a strange land status, make the most of it and think about how sexy and independent you’ll appear to be when chronicling your travels on your next first date.
“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”
Everyone knows to travel light, but making yourself do so is another thing altogether. In preparing for my first resort vacation, I began organizing weeks in advance, setting aside items as they crossed my mind, and adding to my packing list almost daily. This is another aspect where it’s nice to have the experts looking out for you, as Sweet provided a packing list that covered everything from toiletries to the unique items I’d need for the special theme nights and events.
Checking in at the airport I struggled to meet the airline’s 50-pound baggage weight limit and still felt as though I weren’t bringing enough clothes with me. In the end, I found myself not using a full third of the clothes I had packed. What I learned is to bring more swim/pool wear and fewer things that need ironing. Just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no ironing in Mexico. When faced with a choice between zip-lining with my new best friends or ironing a shirt for that evening’s dinner, I’m going to go zip-line every time and so should you.
As for the money, herein lies the beauty of an all-inclusive vacation, as Sweet offers with its resort-based vacations. Sure, you could spend a little extra on some of the excursions if you want, but most can be had at no charge by using the resort credit negotiated by Sweet. Swim with dolphins, snorkel, scuba dive with underwater statues, take a boat tour around the island, or get a massage in the spa, all at no charge.
One money-related tip I would offer is just that — tip. The vacation pricing includes gratuities, but if you want to see bartenders snap to attention at an all-inclusive, pack a wallet full of one dollar bills and make it rain.
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
If you’re fortunate enough to naturally be a go-with-the-flow type, congratulations. But if as I am you’re afflicted with an A-type personality, do yourself a favor and gear down to B-type for the duration of your travels. Sure, you can laud the benefits of your obsessive compulsive disorder while you pack — it’s always great to have someone along who has everything from aspirin to aloe vera, bubble bath to Band-Aids and digital cameras to dental floss with her — but once you’ve arrived at your destination, do yourself a favor and let go.
Maybe a suitcase will suffer a late arrival (one reason to keep all medications, a change of clothes and any other absolute necessities in a carry-on); perhaps the line through customs will be unimaginable; possibly it will rain. None of this will be made better by stressing about it. Breathe, be present, and remember there are worse things in life than sitting on a balcony at a luxury resort in Mexico watching the rain.
“To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”
One of the unexpected pleasures of traveling is that it affords a level of freedom and an opportunity for discovery that one rarely realizes in everyday life. Of course I’m not recommending you go through the week assuming a manufactured identity, but remember you’re with a group of people who have no preconceived notions of you. Be who you want to be; be your most authentic version of you. Maybe others have always told you, and you’ve always told yourself, that you’re shy. Well, here’s the chance to shed that label and not have anyone wonder what’s gotten into you.
Approach each day of your vacation as if it’s an unopened gift. Rip off the bow and the wrapping paper and remember what it feels like to discover something new. Our daily grind doesn’t often afford such opportunities and part of getting the most from your vacation is assuming the role of curious explorer.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”
There’s no way around this one — if you plan to spend your entire trip complaining about the lack of access to a McDonald’s or the mores of the locals, you’re going to be miserable and so will everyone around you. Open your mind, open your heart and welcome the differences. Otherwise, Michener is quite right; you may fare better at home.
One of the most fantastic aspects of my travels with Sweet has been the opportunity to interact with the native community in a meaningful way. Whether building a shed at a special needs school, visiting an orphanage to donate necessities, spending the day bathing stray dogs, or cleaning up trash on the beach, every interaction is a chance to learn and become a more accepting and compassionate individual. Don’t waste it.
“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”
Amen, Mr. Twain! Second perhaps only to the destination itself, the people with whom you share your travel are the factor with the greatest potential to impact your experience. Of course, it’s always wise to choose a harmonious travel companion, but don’t discount the influence of others in the group. Sure, they’re strangers when you first arrive, but do you want them to be strangers at the end of the week?
This is where I can’t find enough superlatives to describe the people with Sweet and the women who travel with them who are affectionately known as Sweeties. Again, do your research. Talk to friends, check the buzz on Facebook, browse the forums on the various company websites. If folks are friendly online, chances are they’ll be friendly in real life.
With Sweet, I was able to join the Sweeties group on Facebook months before my first trip which allowed me to make friends before I’d even set eyes on my fellow travelers. Initial introductions were made all the easier for it and I was able to avoid the awkward standing around the edge of the action, wondering who to talk to moments.
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
Simply put, be prepared to emerge from your vacation a changed individual. Whether miniscule or monumental, a change is gonna come, as they say. If you avail yourself of all that is offered while traveling, one can’t help but emerge with an altered perception of oneself and the world. This is why a recent poll found that people value experiences over things; experiences make us think, challenge us, enrich us. Experiences are literally priceless and the best vacations will provide for a life-changing legacy, if you allow yourself to be aware of and open to that possibility.
“Long voyages, great lies.”
Just as every fish grows bigger with the retelling of the story, so it is that travel tales are enhanced and become more cherished with the passing of time. Reuniting with friends made on a previous Sweet vacation reminded me of settling in at the Thanksgiving table with a loving, happy, and fully-functional family. Legends are made in the collective reconstruction of past events and the laughter is loud and uncontrollable. How many trays of bumblebee shots were imbibed that night in Cozumel? How violent was the rocking of the ship during Sweet’s inaugural cruise as the crew attempted to outrun a hurricane? Which team bested the other in the marathon touch football game on the beach? Only those who were there know for sure, but that doesn’t stop everyone from chiming in and augmenting the tale in the name of fun.
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
Giving oneself the gift of travel is the ultimate act of self-love, for what you experience, what you live and taste and see can never be taken away. It’s a magical and somewhat unfathomable treat to those who have yet to experience it. So the last tip I’ll give you as you prepare for your journey is that once you embark, the travel bug will bite you hard. You’ll crave the camaraderie, the fresh experiences, and, if you travel with Sweet, the opportunity to return and truly make an impact wherever you go. Fortunately, Sweet knows this which is why they offer interest-free payment plans.