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My Amtrak Adventure: Details and Tips

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one of my favorite pics from the trip

I don’t know about you, but train travel across Europe has always been on my bucket list. It was probably inspired at a young age by Murder on the Orient Express. Just me?

Well, unfortunately, that trip remains untaken for now, but the next best (and more affordable) thing was riding Amtrak cross-country from San Francisco to New York. Originally inspired by this blog post, I fell in love with the idea and began planning this journey a couple of years ago.

The goal was to build enough credit card points to pay for the trip rather than paying cash, especially because I wanted the experience of staying in a sleeper car, and I knew that could get pricey. I also wanted to stop off and see friends and cities along the way. So, this trek was getting more complicated (and expensive) quickly.

The other hitch was the timing. I really wanted to ride the rails in the fall, to see the changing leaves, but missed my window last year due to an error I made in building points as an amateur travel hacker. I decided to hold out for an entire year to stick to my desired timeline.

It actually ended up being a great mistake because my best friend from college retired from teaching after 18 years this past May and could now make the trip with me! However, Heather was also on a tight budget, so I knew I’d need enough points for both of us. This required some more careful planning.

All the effort paid off, though, and we had a fantastic trip! Heather was gone for a week, flying home from Chicago, and I was gone for nine days by going all the way to NYC. It was incredible to see an entire cross-section of the country in such a short time, and definitely worth all the details it took to set this trip in motion. (<– pun intended!)

I had to do a lot of research to put this trip together, so I’ll try to give you as much info as I can to save you some time should you want to have your own Amtrak adventure in the future.

I highly recommend it, and look forward to my next train trip! I’m hooked!

(To view the photos and videos from the entire trip, visit my Flickr album.)

 

Day 1: Arrived in San Francisco

I flew in from Georgia and Heather flew in from Texas, so we met up at the airport mid-afternoon. Unfortunately, this left us little time for San Fran site-seeing since we left town again the following morning, but we made the most of it.

First, we checked into our hotel so we could drop our bags off. We stayed at the Hampton Inn San Francisco Downtown/Convention Center, which I also paid for with points (60K Hilton Honors points). This location wasn’t my preference, but ended up being very nice with a super helpful and courteous staff. They even upgraded our room to the floor just below the penthouse because of my points status, so we had great views of the city. (I would’ve rather stayed closer to one of the areas we were going to visit or leave from, but they were unavailable.)

Now we were in full tourist mode. Heather had never been to SFO before, so Fishermans Wharf was on her To Do List. From there, she could also see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz from a distance. We lucked out with beautiful weather and small crowds.

After walking around for a while, we got hungry and were ready for dinner. I really wanted to take her to the Ferry Building to eat, but it closed at 8:00 p.m. and it was already after 7, so we decided to stay down at the Wharf.

On my first trip to the Bay Area in 2010, I found this restaurant called Tarantino’s (unsure of any relation to Quinten), where my friend and I would end up for dinner, watching the Fourth of July fireworks over a foggy Golden Gate Bridge. The following year, I came back to a conference with friends, and we ate there again. So, it just seemed right that I visit a third time on my third trip!

Just as good as I remember, and the staff is wonderful! So, we had a great time there watching the sun set over the water. I love this place, and definitely recommend it.

From there, it was just a short walk over to Ghirardelli Square. This area has definitely improved since my previous visits, and Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate for dessert was an absolute treat!

We walked around there for a little bit and then headed back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

 

Day 2: Emeryville to Salt Lake City

Emeryville is where the train actually leaves from, and it’s just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. It was a very quick and cheap Lyft ride from our hotel. And it was very exciting to see the train pull into the station for the first time!

This entire day was going to be spent on the train, so we wore comfy clothes and settled in for a long ride. This was, of course, after we toured our compartment, took copious amounts of photos, and giggled like schoolgirls.

The California Zephyr line runs from Emeryville to Chicago, so we were some of the first people to board. After we stowed our stuff, we headed to the Observation Car for the best views from the biggest windows.

We were in there for a while, then headed had lunch, and afterward went back to our compartment to work for a couple of hours before dinner. Not the most exciting afternoon activity, but because I am an entrepreneur and so is Heather, it was necessary.

After that it was dinner and bedtime…because we were about to have a very early wakeup call.

 

Day 3: Salt Lake City

So, here’s the downside of stopping Salt Lake City—you arrive and depart around 3:00 a.m! That’s just when the train rolls into town. But the sleeping car attendant knocks on your door about 20 minutes before arrival because they certainly don’t want you to miss your stop.

The downside of this downside meant that I had to get two nights in the hotel—for only two half-nights of sleep. Luckily, I had points for this, too. We stayed the Hampton Inn Salt Lake City Downtown, which was only half a mile from the station. (30K Hilton Honors points per night) It was also nice, as were the staff. And we discovered that our bathroom in this hotel was 1.5 times the size of our entire roommette, ha!

After a few hours of sleep, we went to the enormous and awesome farmers market across the street. It was fun to just walk around, and I even bought a gift and some jewelry.

From there, we jumped in a Lyft to head over to Council Hall and the State Capital to catch the Hop On, Hop Off bus for a tour of the city. It is truly a beautiful area!

After our tour, we went to Bruge’s Waffles and Frites for dinner. It was delicious and authentic Belgian food. (S’mores waffle!) Heather’s parents lived in Belgium for several years, and we were both able to visit. So, it was fun to eat there and talk to the owner.

There wasn’t really anything else to do that evening, so we went to the theater to catch A Star is Born, which was great. It was then time to get to bed for our 2:30 a.m. wakeup call. Oye.

Notes:

  • Neither of us had been to SLC before, but in my research, I learned that it is mostly focused on the outdoors, architecture, and the Mormon culture. So, pretty much all activities fit into these three categories.
  • We just happened to be there during The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints annual convention, ha! So, a lot of the things we wanted to do, like the genealogy center and free Temple Square tour were unavailable, sadly.
  • In some of my research, people noted that the station was in a “seedy” part of town and even the hotel staff told us that outside of the farmers market, that park is normally where a lot of homeless people hang out. I’ll say this: If you travel extensively or spend time around marginalized people, these things won’t bother you. I thought it was the nicest “seedy” area I’d ever been to, and felt perfectly fine walking from the train station to the hotel at 3:00 a.m. We passed maybe half a dozen people at that time of night. SLC is extremely nice and clean, so just keep that in mind. Should you decide to make other arrangements, I don’t hold that against you, but I wanted you to have the facts.

 

Day 4: Salt Lake City to Denver

We were on the train from 3:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and this is undoubtedly the most gorgeous part of the entire trip! I took about a billion photos and videos, but managed to cut them down by a few.

We had the car attendant bring us breakfast rather than going to the dining car. They’ll bring you “room service” at no extra charge, which is nice.

After a few hours, it was time for lunch. I mean, wow! Heather and I just couldn’t stop looking at the scenery. I even told her she’d have to feed me lunch because I couldn’t put my camera/phone down. 😉

Then we decided to spend the afternoon in the Observation Car. We just couldn’t understand how everyone’s jaw was dragging on the floor, and how they could play cards and chat rather than stare wide-eyed out the window as we were doing. It was so gorgeous it didn’t even look real half the time. (Example 1, Example 2, Example 3)

That evening, we rolled into Denver and met up with friends. Joel, Kamee, and Everette were gracious and fun hosts who fed us dinner and let us stay the night.

 

Day 5: Denver

The weather turned cold and crappy when we arrived in Denver, so there were a lot of things we couldn’t do. But our number one priority was to spend time with friends, and that’s exactly what we did. It was so much fun!

Joel is also an entrepreneur, a t-shirt designer and screen printer, and he ended up needing to take a last-minute meeting, so he dropped me, Heather, and Everette off at the mall to wait for him. Kamee has a real job, so she missed out on the fun when she had to go to work.

Everette is nine, and a complete doll. She showed us around her LEGO store, where she picked up a few new additions to her collection, and then we had lunch. After that, Joel met back up with us. Then, another old friend of mine, Annalisa, joined our crew for about an hour. It was so awesome catching up with all these friends I hadn’t seen in years. It reminded me that I need to get back there more often.

After that, we went to a local store to see Joel’s t-shirts on display, Unlisted. And he even gave us one as a souvenir! It was then time to go back to the house and pack up before heading back to the station.

Time with them definitely went by too fast! And Denver is such a great city if you’ve never been there.

As soon as we got on the train, it was time for dinner. This time we tried the surf and turf. By this point, I’d eaten more red meat in a week than I usually do in two months, but other bloggers said to try the steak, because it was surprisingly good for being cooked on a train. And, of course, we just wanted to get our money’s worth with the most expensive items on the menu, ha!

The beds are typically made while you’re at dinner, but we weren’t ready to go to sleep yet, so we went back to the Observation Car. Too bad it wasn’t a starry night, but we still had a great time chatting till almost 1:00 a.m.

 

Day 6: Chicago Bound

Chicago was the end of the line for Heather, so we tried to thoroughly enjoy our last few hours on the train. Breakfast was once again brought to us as we sleepily rolled through the heartland.

After breakfast, we headed back to the Observation Car to clearly see miles and miles of corn and farmland. But it was a clear, beautiful stretch of tracks. There was even an “America the Beautiful” sing-along initiated by one of the passengers.

That afternoon, we got into Chicago. We checked our luggage at the Metropolitan Lounge and headed out on the town. We met up with one of Heather’s former students for coffee, took some photos at the Bean, and strolled through the rainy streets.

Then it was time to head to the ‘burbs to see my friend, Raechel, with whom we were staying. We took the Metra train out to her and enjoyed some deep dish from Giordano’s, which is my favorite of the Chicago pizza joints. It was super yummy!

I was also able to do some laundry at Raechel’s before turning in for the night.

 

Day 7: Chicago

Raechel headed out for a work trip, Heather headed home to Texas, and I got back on the Metra to Chicago.

It was a pretty uneventful day because it was raining hard all day and I needed to get some work done. I’ve been to Chicago multiple times anyway, so I didn’t really feel like I was being cheated. So, I just hung out in Union Station all day. Grabbed a hot dog, walked around, bought a gift and postcards, and plugged away on my laptop.

That evening I got back on the train. This time it was the Capital Limited to DC because there is no direct route to NYC.

This train was a little different. I was given a nice toiletries set, Amtrak magazines, and a fresher menu. Meals were also a bit different because there wasn’t any table service. Instead, you were just making reservations to pick up your food, which I didn’t know at first. You could sit in the dining car, of course, but it wasn’t really community style, just open seating. It felt very different to me (and frankly, I was a little nervous), so I just took my food back to my compartment. But it was the best meal I’d had on the train so far—short ribs and polenta!

We had two really good car attendants. The first was SLC to Denver (hi, Jonathan!), and this was the second, Dave. He was okay with making my bed up later, so I was able to hang out in my chair for a while before switching out my bedding, which was lovely.

It was weird to have all this room to myself now, but also nice in that way. I’m more used to traveling solo, but it was strange to change things up toward the end of the trip. I tucked in for one last night on the train.

 

Day 8: Chicago to New York City (via Washington DC)

My last meal on the train was breakfast, once again brought to me in bed. The rest of the morning I just took in the scenery, which was all woodsy and pretty much the same. It was also another good stretch to listen to my audiobook, Ready Player One, which I started at the beginning of the trip, but hadn’t finished yet.

We got into DC about 1:00 p.m. Lunch wasn’t served on the train due to our arrival time. Technically, you could go grab leftovers if you wanted them, but it hadn’t been that long since I had breakfast, ha! I liked sleeping in for a change.

DC’s Union Station was unusual. The great hall and rooms facing the Capital were quite beautiful, which is what you often see in photos, but the other areas are old and run down. The Acela Lounge is also in desperate need of a renovation, and the snacks and drinks were much more subpar than Chicago. Even though I was switching to a coach seat here, I still had lounge privileges since I came in on a sleeper car.

I only had about two hours, so I just peeked out the door to see the lawn and Capital building. The rest of the time I ate lunch and listened to my book in the lounge.

Here I changed trains to the Northeast Regional, bound for NYC. I only had a coach seat on this train because it was only about a three-hour trip and I didn’t want to use a bunch more points for a sleeper on that short route. But these coach seats still beat an airplane by a mile!

The scenery, however, was nothing special. Lots of industrial parks and some cities. I really wanted to go the northern route through Albany from Chicago, but it was more points. I’m sure it would’ve been much prettier, though.

We were delayed a bit on this route, due to congestion on the tracks, but finally made it into Penn Station a little after 7:00 p.m. My friend April and her mom met me for dinner at Pennsy Food Hall, which was right outside the station. It was great to catch up with her as well, since it had been over a year. And I love a good food hall!

It was a little misty, but I decided to walk through Times Square to my hotel. For my last night, I stayed at the Kimpton Muse Hotel, which was a free night through my IHG credit card. This was a $400+ hotel in a primo area, so I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it! It was also really nice, as you can imagine.

 

Day 9: NYC to ATL

Last day! Luckily, it was a cool and beautiful day in the City. I started it by having coffee with my friend, Jordan.

From there, I went to the New-York Historical Society for the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. I found out about it through a PBS special a couple of months ago. I realized it was actually at the British Museum when the aforementioned Rachel and I were in England during the spring, but we somehow missed it. So, I was glad to catch it here.

Even spending about an hour and a half there I felt pretty rushed, but that’s all the time I had. I would’ve like to take a little more time, as well as check out some of the other exhibits, but that’s all I could spare.

I caught a Lyft back to the hotel to grab my overly stuffed (and twice repacked) suitcase, and then it was time to head to the airport. The last few times I’ve been to NYC, I always use the NYC Express Bus, and recommend it.

Sadly, we were delayed an hour or so. Because I knew this was the last, little stretch of my trip, I was ready to get home at this point. But I finally made it back to A-town! It was a fantastic trip, but it was really nice to sleep in my bed again!

 

So, those are the details of the trip. Now, I’ll give you all the tips I can so you can plan your own Amtrak adventure!

 

Expenses:

Because I paid for the train trip, hotels, and my return flight with points, the only expenses I had were tips to train attendants (more on that below), meals off the train, activities, gifts, souvenirs, and ride shares. Overall, we got $3,000+ paid for with points, and my out-of-pocket expenses totaled bout $700.

So, depending on your resources and preferences, you could easily spend more or less than I did.

Note:

  • Since I booked the trip with points, I’m not exactly sure how Amtrak prices work. All I know is that our trip would have cost about $2,000 (because I asked).
  • For the Amtrak portion, I had the Amtrak Guest Rewards Credit Card, which had a 30K points bonus when I got it over a year ago. I also transferred 30K Starwood Points to pay for this trip. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option anymore. Starwood was bought by Marriott earlier this year, and they discontinued the ability to transfer those points on July 31, 2018. Once the programs are fully combined, they may bring back that option in the future, but I’m not sure. So, right now, all you can do is build Amtrak points.
  • I can also refer you to Amtrak Guest Rewards, their main loyalty program, and we can each get 500 points if you take a trip within 90 days of signing up. I have to do this individually, so just let me know if you’re interested in signing up. This is a free program.
  • If your schedule is flexible and you want to save a few bucks, call and book your reservation over the phone with Amtrak. The people I spoke with were incredibly helpful, and helped me choose dates and options to maximize my points (and keep the costs lower).

 

Train Travel Tips: 

  • Another cool thing about riding trains is that you arrive in the middle of the city, unlike flying. This generally makes getting around fairly easy.
  • As I said, the California Zephyr runs from Emeryville to Chicago, but we were also ticketed to get on and off the route in Salt Lake City and Denver. I/we were in each of the five cities for about 24 hours, but you don’t have to ride that entire way. Or you can stay longer in other cities. It’s entirely customizable. There are many, many stops along the way.
  • If you could only choose one route, it should definitely be the one from Salt Lake City to Denver. This was by far the most stunning part of the journey!
  • Every few stops are “fresh air/smoke” breaks, so you can get off the train anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to walk around. I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s where larger groups of people are getting on and off the train. Some stops are very scenic (Glenwood Springs) and some are not (Reno). But it’s nice to stretch you legs. When possible, ask your car attendant that your meal reservations not to conflict with these stops so you can get out for a bit.
  • Meals on the train are included with sleeper cars—woo hoo! And for lunch and dinner, you get a salad, entree, and dessert! Coffee, tea, juice, hot water, and bottled water are included as well, so the only drinks you’d pay for are alcoholic ones.
  • The meals are better than airplane food, but not as good as actual restaurants. But I will say that the desserts are pretty yummy. The salted caramel cheesecake was our fav. (California Zephyr menu and Capital Limited menu)
  • Mealtimes on the California Zephyr are community seating, meaning it’s always four people per table. So, if you are traveling with less than four people, you get sat with others. But it was a cool way to get to know other people and their stories. We enjoyed everyone we sat with. My second train from Chicago to DC was not this way, so I’m not exactly sure what lines it pertains to.
  • Tipping: I read a couple of other blogs and used their guidelines, which were $2 for breakfast, $3 for lunch, $5 for dinner, and $10 each night for your car attendant. These are per person guidelines.
  • Being in the sleeper cars also allows you access into nicer lounges at the big stops like Chicago, Washington DC, and New York. There you’ll find complimentary snacks and beverages, and of course, nicer places to sit. They’ll also hold your luggage while you sightsee, which is awesome. (Note: not as nice as some airport lounges)
  • In sleepers, they give you two hangers in your (tiny) closet, as well as towels and wash cloths.
  • Get to the Observation Car early! It can get crowded because it’s shared by all passengers.
  • If you’re unsure of things to do when you get off, check out these Amtrak city guides.
  • Strangely, even in 2018, there is no Wifi on the long-distance trains. It was available for free on the shorter, commuter trains, like my DC to NYC train, though. I used Heather’s hotspot for my laptop now and again, but it wasn’t always reliable either. And there are long stretches without even phone service.
  • If someone is picking you up or meeting you at a train station, I recommend they download the Amtrak app. All they need is the train number, and the arrival times are extremely accurate. When you don’t have phone service, this is extremely helpful. Trains easily get delayed because both commuter and commercial trains share the tracks. So, sometimes you have to wait for another train to pass.
  • In a few spots, it’s good to be in the Observation Car for the Trails & Rails guides. The National Parks Service people will come give a little bit of the history of the area you’re passing through, which is fun. Wish there were more of these!

 

Packing and essentials:

  • We didn’t want to check our luggage, but you are allowed two carry-ons and two pieces of luggage per person. Note: These will not all fit in most of the tiny sleepers! However, there is a luggage rack in the lower level each car by the toilet/showers where you can stash bags you don’t want to check but keep handy. This operates on a honor system, but I never heard about any issues with theft in my research. We never worried about our stuff. We kept more valuable stuff, like my laptop, in our sleeper car. More about baggage.
  • There is no lock on the outside of the sleeper compartments. So, you could lock yourself in, but not lock it when you leave. This was kind of strange, but again, you get used to it. I left my laptop under things a couple of times when I didn’t want to carry it into the Observation Lounge.
  • We each carried a purse (mine was large to also carry my laptop), an overnight bag, and a carry-on suitcase. My overnight bag was a collapsable backpack from IKEA, so I only used it as needed. The first two items were in our sleeper car, and the third was in the luggage rack. But it was really nice to have the overnight bag for those strange travel days like Salt Lake City where you’re getting on and off in the middle of the night.
  • Wear layers on the train because the air isn’t always easy to control the temperature. Likewise, bring comfy pants and socks for the long days you may spend in your compartment. You’ll quickly see that it isn’t a fashion show aboard the train! 🙂
  • I recommend bringing ear plugs and an eye mask. I use these whenever I travel, but it’s better to be over-prepared for sleep than under. Heather didn’t use the ear plugs because she said she has four kids and this was quiet enough, ha! Sleeping on the train is not bad at all. Kinda like sleeping on a couch.
  • External battery packs for electronics are always good, especially because your phone battery can drain easily from the lack of service or taking video. Sadly, my portable charger isn’t available any longer, but I prefer one like this that can charge different kinds of devices at once.
  • Have an extension cord for your sleeper! In the Observation Lounge, there are plenty of plugs, but for some reason, there is only one in the sleeping compartment. So, we had an extension cord and power block for multiple devices. 
  • A few snacks are good to have on hand. We went a little overboard here since we didn’t know what to expect, ha! We each had a gallon Ziplock of snacks and then picked up fruit and stuff from the hotels. But I’m not really a snacker, so this was extra stuff I didn’t really need to carry around. I think we each only ate one or two things along the way. So, just don’t go crazy unless you’re a big snacker.
  • Flip flops for shower are essential! 
  • Clorox wipes or (Babyganics wipes, my fav) are good for wiping down some of the surfaces, especially if you have a thing about germs. Nothing looked unclean, but just a precaution. This is what another blogger listed.
  • Safety pins and duct tape are tips I picked up from other bloggers. These could come in handy. For example, we used safety pins to hold our curtain in place on one leg where we wanted some more natural light. I saw other bloggers using duct tape to use the washcloths in their rooms to direct the air when the top bunk person got cold. Just interesting items you wouldn’t think about. Totally optional.
  • I travel with electrolyte powders or tablets. This was a tip from a friend who is a travel blogger, and I’ve been doing this for a few years. I never drink enough water when I travel, so this is helpful.
  • I travel with wrinkle release. I love this stuff. I’d just hang up the shirt I was going to wear the next day, and wrinkle release the heck out of it the night before. Heather sells LuLaRoe and wore that the entire time. Interestingly, that stuff never seemed to wrinkle.
  • Bring books, cards, or whatever else will keep you entertained on those long stretches. However, I absolutely loved having an audiobook! I never got tired of staring out the window, and this allowed me to “read” a book at the same time. (Note: many libraries also have the capability for you to listen to audiobooks now)
  • I always travel with doTerra essential oils. Great for blisters, fighting off sickness, sore muscles, headaches, and pretty much anything else.
  • Love my Envirosax! I keep several in my purse at all times, but I also take them when traveling because they always come in handy. I even use the pouch they come in on trips for cords and things.
  • These Tide sink packets are great for short trip emergencies or long trips when you can’t access laundry facilities or don’t want to pay for them.
  • This silicone flat iron pouch is good for when you have limited counter space and need to rest a flat iron or curling iron on the floor or another surface.

 

Reference posts:

Here are some of the places I found helpful info for the trip.

 

To view the photos and videos from the entire trip, visit my Flickr album.

 

Okay, any questions?

 

(Some links are affiliate links.)

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My Birthday Wish

sandrachile-686986-unsplashI don’t just celebrate my birthday, I celebrate my birth month. And this year, I’d like everyone to join in the fun!

Rather than gifts or online fundraisers (which are great, by the way), I’ve decided to celebrate the simple things in life that make it truly worth living: kindness, generosity, decency, love, connection, and all around do-gooding. It just feels like so much of this is missing from society right now, and I’d love for you to help me shine a spotlight on something more hopeful.

You’ve heard of random acts of kindness, but I’m challenging you to intentional acts of kindness.

Seek it out.
Plan on it.
Make it happen.

Your gesture doesn’t have to be big to count. There are a million little decisions you can make differently every day. Or you can create a moment to remember forever.

– Open a door for a stranger.
– Look a homeless person in the eye and smile.
– Buy someone coffee.
– Let someone cut in front of you.
– Donate to a charity.
– Babysit for a single parent.
– Volunteer your time with a nonprofit.

You decide. Just find a way to be kind. (But if you want to go big, I won’t stop you!)

What you do is totally up to you. All I ask is that you record it here for me (and everyone else) to see.

This isn’t about bragging. This is about being reminded that there is more good happening than bad, that one person can make a difference, and that one simple act matters.

Because here’s the thing: I believe generosity is contagious. So, what if you and I started something that spread? Even if it just spread to one other person, wouldn’t that be worth it? I think so.

So, what do you say? Will you join me in spreading some kindness?

If so, here are the rules:
1. No act of kindness is too big or too small.
2. You’ll record your act here for us to see.
3. You can share this event or invite anyone to participate
4. You can do one act or many.
5. You get bonus points if it’s face-to-face with another human.

Let’s (purposefully) do some good.

Would you like to join me in this challenge? If so, participate on Facebook!

PS: Facebook only let me extend the event for 14 days, and it expires on Sunday. But I’m challenging myself to do this every day in September to celebrate my birth month. I’ve even set up a reminder on my phone. Any fellow over-achievers are welcome to do the same! And if you see this after the Facebook event ends, you can post your intentional act of kindness in the comments!


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Exploring The Enneagram

IMG_8834Are you familiar with the Enneagram? I first heard about it a couple of years ago, but wasn’t given much of a compelling introduction, so I didn’t think much of it. But this year, I heard my friend Sarah’s podcast episode—and it changed everything. She interviewed the co-author of The Road Back to You, a popular book about the Enneagram, and after hearing that episode, I was hooked.

First of all, if you aren’t sure what the Enneagram is, it’s a personality typing system, but the difference between it and others like Myers-Briggs , Strengths Finder, or DISC is that it includes the spiritual component, which is really important to me. So, I was intrigued to hear how my specific personality related to aspects of my faith.

And if you didn’t know, I love personality tests! I’ve written about being an INFJ on this blog before, and have always found exploring my identity a fascinating pursuit. I now know that’s pretty common for my type as well.

The other thing I learned about about the Enneagram is that you shouldn’t take a test to determine your number type. As Suzanne Stabile describes in that podcast episode on Surviving Sarah, it’s an oral tradition. It’s a way of seeing the world. You are supposed to hear your type and recognize it. She also notes that the questions aren’t written correctly in most tests, so your results will likely come out skewed if you just try to Google a test. I found this to be the case for me. I took three tests, and only one came out with the number I’d already resonated with.

So, what’s my number?

I’m a 4. Specifically, I’m a 4 wing 3.

As with every personality type, there are pros and cons. But those who know the Enneagram well often have a slight look of sadness in their eyes when I tell them that I’m a 4. Why? It’s hard being a 4!

There are things that set it apart from everyone else, and Suzanne and some others like her believe there are also fewer 4s than any other number in the world, meaning less people can relate to you. I’ve definitely found this to be the case for me.

And did you know INFJ is the smallest percentage of the population as well? So, combine a 4 with an INFJ and…we’re a rarity. There aren’t many people who think like us and see the world the way we do. Because of that, I even put out a call on social media recently to try and find others. I wanted them (and myself) to know we aren’t alone!

I did manage to find a couple of them, and surprisingly, even found one in my social circle, which was fantastic. We had coffee the other day to discuss what it’s like being us because it ain’t easy. There aren’t many people who could survive a day in our head’s, ha!

So, what’s a 4, you ask?

It was hard to find a good, condensed breakdown of the types that I felt would immediately give you a clear picture, but TheWorldCounts.com talks about the 4 this way:

4’s are described as the Individualist or the Romantic

Dominant Traits:

  • Creative
  • Expressive
  • Sensitive
  • Emotional
  • Introspective
  • Artistic
  • Authentic

Focus of Attention: In Search of What is Missing… the Ideal… the Unattainable.

Basic Fear: To Have No Identity

Basic Desire: To Be Unique, Different

Strengths:

  • Expressive
  • Sensitive to Feelings
  • Self-Aware
  • Appreciative of Beauty
  • Empathetic
  • Compassionate

Challenges:

  • Moody
  • Temperamental
  • Prone to Melancholy
  • Self-Absorbed
  • Self-Indulgent
  • Intense
  • Unsatisfied with What Is

General Behavior of an Individualist

A Four believes that they are unique, and different from the norm. Their whole identity is attached to this belief. They perceive this difference as a gift, because Fours hate to think that they’re ordinary and common. But at the same time, their feelings of uniqueness is a curse which keeps them from enjoying the simpler things in life, the way other people do.

Fours tend to feel superior from everyone else, since they think they’re special. However, deep inside, they feel that something’s missing, and they fear that it might be caused by a flaw or defect in their own selves. Fours, as you can tell, are emotionally complex. A deep feeling of abandonment makes them feel that they will never be happy or fulfilled.

They long for deep connections in their relationships, to be understood and appreciated for who they truly are. For people to see and appreciate their uniqueness. It is easy for them to feel misjudged and misunderstood.

Fours are moody and temperamental. They are often wrapped in their thoughts, analyzing their feelings. They are very self-aware, and in tune with their emotions. This trait extends to others. Empathy and compassion are strengths of this personality type.

Ian Cron often says, “The 4’s don’t have emotions, they ARE their emotions!” And I’d have to agree. There’s a lot going on in here every minute of the day. 😉

You can read more about a 4 here, as well as a quick overview of the other types.

That’s just a little bit about me. Now, let’s talk about you.

Interested in learning more? I suggest starting with Sarah’s podcast episode because Suzanne breaks down the main points of all nine types. If that gets you more curious about the Enneagram, I definitely recommend reading The Road Back to You. It’s a really great book. Of course, I may be biased because the other author is a 4. 😉 But it’s actually a fun read. Not stuffy or super academic like you might expect a book on personalities to be.

From there, here are a few other resources:

  • Typeology Podcast from Ian Cron
  • The Road Back to You podcast
  • Your Enneagram Coach with Beth McCord
  • Attend one of Suzanne Stabile’s events
  • There are also a number of random Enneagram people I follow on Instagram.
  • You can Google and find many, many other resources, but these are the ones I’ve looked into myself.

So, do you know your type? List it in the comments. I’d love to hear!

 

Oh, and a quick warning, exploring the Enneagram is a bit like going to therapy. You can probably tell that from the quick intro the 4 that I listed above. It’s not all pretty! While most personality tests tend to focus on your strengths, the Enneagram focuses on your motivations.

It definitely talks about your strengths and weaknesses, but it’s also meant to help you grow spiritually and as a person, and that can sometimes stir a few things up. But I highly recommend this process! Just give the podcast a listen or read an overview to see what you think before making a decision.

 


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Ireland: Itinerary and Highlights

Cliffs of Moher - Danger

Yep, we kept going!

It’s the final stop on mine and Raechel’s England, Scotland, and Ireland adventure! This is only the third time I’ve taken a two-week vacation, and like the previous two, some days it felt like we’d be gone for months, and some days it felt like we just left.

So, it was kind of weird getting to the third country, and knowing we’d be heading home soon. I hadn’t really thawed out, my feet hurt, I missed my bed, and yet, I was excited to be there. Ireland had been on my “must see” list for many years, so I had high hopes.

And, well, I have to confess—and this is hard to admit—Ireland was disappointing. Actually, I don’t think it was entirely Ireland’s fault. It was sort of a series of unfortunate events, as it were. You’ll see below. Admittedly, we also had the least amount of time here, too, so Ireland also didn’t get the chance to make it up to us.

So, it’s not like I wouldn’t go back to Ireland given the opportunity, but it won’t be as high on my return list as England and Scotland.

If you haven’t been, keep reading to learn from our experience. If you have, let me know what I could do differently, and what sites I should hit next time.

 

ITINERARY:

DAY 1:

  • We didn’t exactly get to sleep in, but at least it wasn’t too early of a flight out of Edinburgh and into Dublin. And it’s not a long flight either, which was nice. We mostly passed the time by re-watching Leap Year because, why not? Amy Adams is awesome. #romcom
  • Once again, we were naive and thought that we’d have a good amount of time after arriving to begin our sight-seeing. Well, not so much. This is, after all, Ireland, and what would Dublin be without a protest? So, we arrived at our hotel a couple of hours later than planned. First, because the bus we were riding was late. Second, we found out why—there was a huge protest downtown, and traffic was held up everywhere. Third, due to rerouting traffic, we weren’t let off the bus close to our hotel, and ended up dragging our suitcases through huge crowds for over a mile. So, we were much later than planned and worn out by the time we got settled. And, wouldn’t you know, this day had the highest temps we’d seen the entire trip. So, it was about 50 degrees or so, and with all the walking and carrying of our stuff, I was also hot and sweaty by the time we got to the hotel. A waste of beautiful weather, and it didn’t last long.
  • Because we didn’t have a lot of time left in the day, we just decided to grab dinner and do some shopping. I found good ratings for The Parnell Heritage Bar & Grill, so we walked there for some traditional Irish fare. We got the fish and chips and beef and Guinness stew, and they were just okay. Not a lot of flavor, despite supposedly being crowd favorites.
  • Next, because we’d left such little time for shopping in England and Scotland, we decided to get this over with on the front end of Ireland rather than scrambling at the end. But by the time we wrapped up our meal, there wasn’t much open. (Are you noticing this theme between the three countries?) We did, however, find Carroll’s Irish Gifts. There are a ton of these around Dublin, and most of the stuff is kitschy and crappy, but there are actually some good finds too. And lots of food, if that’s what you’re after. I wound up buying a really beautiful knit scarf that I’ll be excited to wear this winter, and some gifts as well. And there may or may not have also been some Irish creme filled chocolates that made their way into my cart.
  • Early to bed for another long day ahead.

DAY 2:

  • Because our final day was going to be a tour, this was our only morning to have a nice, leisurely breakfast. However, it was also a Sunday. So, we got up early to adequately nourish ourselves, and found mostly disappointment. The restaurant we’d planned to go to, The Kingfisher, was closed—as was most everything else. Turns out, most of the city doesn’t open until church lets out. So, we ended up having to settle for something between a convenience store and a deli. It had seating, but the food was mostly coffee machines and breakfast sandwiches. Sigh.
  • We then caught the bus and saw a few sites, including Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I love seeing all the beautiful architecture in old cities like this, and listening to the history, so I enjoyed taking that in for a bit.
  • Next, it was off to the Guinness Storehouse, where the original dark ale hails from. So, here’s the thing with the GS. Everyone told us to go, despite the fact that Raechel doesn’t drink beer and I don’t care for Guinness. But everyone said we should still go because it was very important to the history of the city and there is a rooftop bar with glass walls so you can get great views. And…while those things are true, it was still several hours and like $30 bucks per person down the drain. If you aren’t a Guinness fan, don’t bother. I will admit that the history is interesting, and Guinness is to Dublin what Disney is to Orlando, but it wasn’t worth our limited and valuable time, or our cash. And the rooftop bar was extremely crowded, even in the morning hours, and just like the rest of our trip, the weather was cold and overcast, so there really wasn’t much of a view. Take heed!
  • After that, we rode the bus a little bit more, with the Irish Immigration Museum as our next, big destination. And this stop didn’t disappoint! Raechel and I were both interested in visiting the museum because we had Irish heritage, but I’d still recommend it to anyone interested in Ireland’s history and people in general. What we learned is that this small, but mighty country has a lot of influence all over the world because so many can trace their roots back here. (See the note about potatoes below.) It’s actually kind of crazy when you see it all laid out in black and white. EPIC, as it’s known, was a really fascinating place, and I’m so glad we had a good amount of time here. My only regret is going on a Sunday because the genealogy center was closed, which we didn’t realize until we got there. I would’ve love to sit down with a professional to trace my family history. But we both highly recommend this place if you’re in Dublin!
  • It was still chilly, but not raining, so we set out on foot to admire a few other sites. Another pitstop on my list was the lovely Ha’Penny Bridge, the first pedestrian bridge for which the toll was a half penny (or ha’penny). And we also quickly trekked through the Temple Bar district, which is packed with people because of all the bars and restaurants, but super cute. There was some sort of big rugby match on, so there were plenty of fans and exhibitions in the street too.
  • We also kept seeing donut places around the city, and weren’t sure if Dublin donuts were different or it was just some sort of local food trend. So, we found a place to try one, and I think it’s probably just the latter. It was a good donut, but nothing out of the ordinary. But that and a hot coffee made for a nice afternoon snack.
  • For dinner, we were told to go to The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub, established in 1198. As with the other recommendations, it was just okay. I got the lamb stew, because I wanted to try another authentic Irish dish. Just not a lot of flavor there. But, let’s face it, Ireland isn’t really known for it’s food. It was also PACKED, and I assume that’s pretty standard. I wish we’d gone for lunch maybe, so we could’ve seen more of the restaurant since it was pretty cool looking. Just going for a drink could’ve been another option. It’s also, as far as I could tell, mostly open air, so it was kind of chilly for dinner.
  • The next day would be our final in Ireland, so we headed to a deli to grab some breakfast for the morning, and then off to bed.

DAY 3:

  • Our last full day of the trip was a day long excursion to the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs were something Raechel really wanted to see, and I just wanted to make sure we saw more of Ireland than Dublin. But this was a 13-hour journey, so it was going to take up our entire day. However, we would get to go all the way across Ireland, which was cool. And we’d be staring at the Atlantic upon arrival!
  • I have to say, this excursion was part of what made Ireland so iffy for me, and I think Raechel too. Unlike our amazing Scotland excursion, this was a “large group experience,” meaning it wasn’t a small bus of 20 or so people. There were more like 50+ people. Just that fact definitely made the trip less enjoyable. Keeping up with that many people meant that we were on a less comfortable bus and everything was more crowded in restaurants, and frankly, was a hassle. Our guide wasn’t all that exciting or personable either.
  • One of the selling points for this specific trip was that you get there before the crowds. And we definitely did, which was nice. However, it was also quite foggy. So, the amazing view we went to see…we didn’t get. I still don’t know if this is because we just got there on a bad weather day, or the mornings in general are usually like that. But, I will say that things cleared up as were leaving! The skies parted…as we got on our bus. #sheesh So, the promised bus loads that arrived as we were boarding likely got fantastic views.
  • From there, we went to the “mini Cliffs” just a few miles away, which were very unique and cool. And then, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump away to the nearby village for lunch. I do not kid you when I say Raechel had THREE types of potatoes on her plate! Yes, it’s true, the Irish love their potatoes.  I don’t remember the name of the village, but it was a little strange in that it looked mostly very new and built for tourists. The food was really good, tough. But because of all the buses that stop there, we literally had about 10 or 15 minutes to eat by the time we got through the line and sat down with our food.
  • We were also looking forward to our afternoon stop in Galway. We’d hoped to do some shopping and were anxious to see another cute and historic city, since we’d already seen so many adorable ones by now. Unfortunately, more disappointment. The driver let us off near a shopping mall, which was filled with modern chain and department stores. We looked around, but didn’t find anything we were looking for, and even missed a lot of the historic architecture. We managed to find some of it down a side street, but with such little time in Galway, we only managed to walk around this part for a few minutes before needing to head back to the bus.
  • We arrived back in Dublin around 8:00 p.m., and wanted to hit a good place for dinner to end our day on a high note. We chose The Bank Bar & Restaurant, which was just what it sounds like. It was a gorgeous, old converted bank. I mean, super cool. The menu was modern, not traditional, but we didn’t really have a lot of things to check off on our food list for Ireland, so we chose the different atmosphere. But I really liked the food and cocktails, and it was a great way to finish off Ireland.
  • Day trip link on Viator: Cliffs of Moher Day Trip from Dublin – For the reasons mentioned, I wouldn’t recommend this one. If you can find a small group tour, do that instead. And, despite the crowds, go to the Cliffs in the afternoon.

DAY 4:

  • Time to head back to the States! It was an early flight out, and due to the time change, we arrived at JFK early afternoon, which was nice.
  • We did have time to grab a decent breakfast in the Dublin airport, though,  also grabbed a scone for the road! Butter, jam, and a delicious scone was a good way to begin the journey home. I also had mine with a side of mimosa. 😉 But, man, I sure do miss that English clotted cream!
  • By the time we got back to the US, we were sort of starved for vegetables and fresh foods, so seeking out a salad was our primary concern. But, of course, since we’d had mostly pub food for the previous two weeks, we also had all sorts of cravings. We settled on a slice of pizza and Caprese salad, which hit the spot on both counts.
  • From here, we had several hours to kill so we just played on our devices, chatted, recounted trip highlights, and watched shows until it was time to depart back to Atlanta for me and Chicago for Raechel.

It was a great, but exhausting two weeks! Thanks for reading along!

You can check out all the trip photos here.

 

COUNTRY-SPECIFIC NOTES:

  • We stayed at the Maldron Parnell Square Hotel. Because of the time and headache of getting there, at first it seemed like the location wasn’t going to be great. But once the crowds died down, and we got the lay of the land, the location wasn’t so bad.
  • A number of things close early like restaurants and attractions, so double-check this stuff when planning. And make sure you don’t miss the note above the city not opening till late morning on Sundays!
  • We ended up getting the DoDublin bus pass at the airport. It’s a 72-hour pass with hop on, hop off privileges at tourist stops, plus gets you to and from the airport. So, it was nice to have it all rolled into one and not have to figure out any other transportation options.
  • We arrived on a Saturday, so if that’s your schedule, too, check online for any scheduled protests! It was INSANELY crowded in the city center on Saturday due to the protest, but the rest of the time, the crowds weren’t bad at all.
  • Don’t plan to do much shopping at this airport. There aren’t many stores, especially after you get through to the gate areas.
  • Gaelic is now only spoken by a very small percentage of the population, though a revival is underway. In places like Galway, all the signs are in both English and Gaelic, so it’s interesting to see how they are trying to preserve the culture. And in some more remote places, like the Aran Islands, it’s still the predominant language, though that is a rarity. We only heard it spoken a couple of times.

 

GENERAL TRIP NOTES AND ADVICE:

  • It took me a long time to find this site (like a year and a half), but we booked our trip through TripMasters. This lovely site allows you to choose exactly how many nights you’d like in each country (worldwide), in what order, and your mode of transportation as well. It also gives you the opportunity to bundle your hotel and activities. You can go with the cheapest hotels or even upgrade to nicer ones. We got a great deal, and I definitely recommend using this site if you don’t want to book everything separately.
  • These Clarks Cloudsteppers were my saving grace on this trip! I wore them most of the two weeks, and they made all the walking so much easier. I did end up with a couple of blisters, but they weren’t bad, and didn’t hurt while wearing these babies.
  • I love using Viator for trip activities and excursions. The app also allows you to keep vouchers there rather than printing them.
  • It depends how you like to travel, but we both liked being active and on the go. So, most lunches were just snacks we picked up or packed. Then we’d stop for nicer dinners.
  • As you can already tell from this post, Raechel and I are planners. So, we had a Google Sheet set up with what were doing each day and time, along with links and reservation numbers, track expenses, etc. This helped us maximize our time really well, and was awesome since we were planning a lot over email and phone while living in different cities.
  • Raechel had international data through her work phone, which served us VERY well. Otherwise, we were going to use AT&T’s international day pass, and just trade off days to split the costs.
  • Unfortunately for me, most places didn’t take AMEX (which was all I carried), so Raechel paid for a lot of the little stuff like meals, and I bought the big, online things like tours with my card to balance us out.
  • When we weren’t using the hop on, hop off bus or Underground (which was the vast majority of the time because Raechel is awesome at navigation), we used Uber. I would’ve definitely preferred Lyft, but it’s not in other countries yet. You can, of course, take the adorable taxis but I just love the ease of ride share apps, payments, tips, and splitting fares. (Use my link for an introductory discount.)
  • I got a head cold at the end of the week, and wish I would’ve brought cold meds, aspirin, etc, with me. I found all those things there, of course, but most everything comes in packs of 16 tablets, and you can only get two packs at a time…so, I made multiple trips in all three countries.

 

MY TRAVEL NECESSITIES:

  • We tried out these foot hammocks for the international flights. They may seem and look silly, and let’s face it, they are, but they made sleeping on the intercontinental flights a bit easier. We also had Delta Comfort seats, so we had more leg room. I was too tall to use them in the cheap seats, since my knees almost hit the seat in front of me, but Raechel is shorter, and used them in both spots successfully.
  • I travel with a number of doTerra essential oils, but for active trips, I especially recommend the Deep Blue Samples. These little gems are like Icy Hot, but better, and are fantastic at the end of the day on your feet or back.
  • I do not like hand sanitizer because it makes my hands feel sticky and gross. But I found these alcohol-free Babyganics wipes before my trip to India and now carry them with me everywhere. These make my hands feel clean and not sticky, and are great for travel and on the go—baby or not.
  • One of my friends who is a travel writer gave me this tip, and it’s a good one. Whether it’s blistering hot (hello, India!) or a beautiful day (hello, LA!), carrying electrolyte tabs or powder is a great idea to keep you replenished.
  • I don’t go anywhere without wrinkle release, because I hate ironing. And on international trips, I wasn’t sure what the iron situation would be anyway.
  • Love my Envirosax! I keep several in my purse at all times, but I also take them when traveling because they always come in handy. I even use the pouch they come in on trips for cords and things.
  • These Tide sink packets are great for short trip emergencies or long trips when you can’t access laundry facilities or don’t want to pay for them.
  • This silicone flat iron pouch is good for when you have limited counter space and need to rest a flat iron or curling iron on the floor or another surface.
  • We ended up buying a small bag of Epsom salt in England for our achy feet, but next time I’ll just take these travel packs.
  • For adapters and travel cords, I’ve had great luck with these options: this Belkin block is good for home and travel, this little Monster stays in my laptop bag at all times, and this Maxah universal plug has gone with me to five countries so far.
  • Sadly, my portable charger isn’t available any longer, but I prefer one like this that can charge different kinds of devices at once.
  • I do a cleanse about three times per year or so, but especially after extensive travel or when food quality has been bad (hear: fried carbs). This is a good option for newbies and is more gentle on your system, but I’ve used many kinds by this brand.

 

BONUS:

Because our families are both originally from the UK and Ireland (way, way back), Raechel and I both asked for Ancestry DNA kits for Christmas so we could get our results before the trip. That made our time even more fun and interesting, and we were on the lookout for our family’s last names and traces every where we went.

For the record, I’m 44% British, 37% Ireland/Scotland/Wales, as well as a little of this and that. But, really, you could just look at me and figure that out. 😉

 

Previously: England and Scotland

Ha'Penny Bridge

Ha’Penny Bridge

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Scotland: Itinerary and Highlights

Edinburgh Castle in the background (inspired Hogwarts)

Raechel and I with Edinburgh Castle in the background…the inspiration for Hogwarts!

Scotland was the second stop on mine and Raechel’s England, Scotland, and Ireland tour. And it was an utter surprise and delight!

This beautiful country made the cut on our vacation itinerary mainly because our ancestors come from there (see the bonus section below), and also, why not? We were too close not to go! But unlike England and Ireland, we didn’t really have a lot of expectations or items on our To Do List.

After a bit of research, we figured out a few things to see and do, but mostly, it was a bit of a breather between two, much busier stops. However, we both absolutely fell in love with Scotland!

It was gorgeous, and the people were incredibly friendly. I think either of us would go back in a heartbeat!

Why? Keep reading!

 

ITINERARY:

DAY 1:

  • Both of us really wanted to take the train at some point on our trip since that’s not something we really get to do in the U.S., so this was the perfect opportunity. We made the trek from King’s Cross in London to Edinburgh’s Waverly train station in just four hours. And it was so much nicer and more comfortable than going by plane. So glad we were able to do that, and we recommend it.
  • We next checked into our hotel, which was by the cruise port, and went to the nearby Ocean Terminal for lunch. Italian isn’t something I choose often, just because I’m rarely in the mood, but that places was very yummy. And I was able to get a Caprese salad, which was wonderful just because vegetables and lighter fare hadn’t been a big part of the trip so far.
  • One of the main things on our list was Invisible Edinburgh, a social enterprise that employs homeless individuals as walking tour guides. (Brilliant, right?!?!) We were hoping we could join a tour later that day, so we headed to the Grassmarket District to poke around, grab some tea, and hopefully book tour tickets since that was their meeting spot.
  • Scotland is known for it’s cold winds, and well, I’ve told you about our luck with the weather so far… So, it was bitterly cold that afternoon, and we ducked into a nearby cafe for hot tea. We also tried to book the tickets, but found out that there weren’t any more tours that day. They kinda do them on-demand, and due to the recent weather, there wasn’t much interest.
  • Since the tour was out, we booked tickets for the day after next, and wandered around the streets for a bit. However, the sun was setting, which meant most of the businesses were closing. (Why do these major cities close everything so early!) But we managed to walk around for a bit in the wind, admiring the lovely architecture. And we knew the next day would be a long one, so we just picked up sandwiches and ate in our room.

DAY 2:

  • This day was one of the best on our entire trip due to our tour…which was 12 1/2 hours! I really wanted to see Loch Ness for the fun of it, and Raechel really wanted to take in the Highlands. So, we found a tour that let us do both, and it was awesome!
  • The difficult thing about this tour is that you’re sitting for the vast majority of the day because the trip is so long. And every stop was what our amazing tour guide, Andrew (who appropriately wore his kilt), called a “ninja stop.” We were told that the quicker we could take our bathroom breaks and photo opps, the more we’d get to stop and see So, most of us took on that challenge.
  • If it was cold in the city, it was far colder in the Highlands! Snow was still everywhere from the recent storm. But it was so wild and wonderful, and we loved all our little, ninja stops. Unfortunately, the photos just don’t do it justice. We were also able to stop and feed these deer in the wilderness, which ran up when they saw the white tourist buses approaching because it meant..apples! They’d come up and eat them right out of your hand. But, if you didn’t have food, they were not interested in you, ha!
  • We also made our way to a truck stop type place to grab snacks for the day. (There wasn’t an actual lunch stop, so we ate along the way in the bus.) This was one of the two places we looked for souvenirs during the day, but probably because it’s one of the tour bus stops, everything seemed priced high.
  • One of the reasons that made Andrew such a great guide is that he told a lot of fantastic stories. The tour guides on these excursions are certainly trained in history and lore, and you hear a lot of that on the different routes no matter where you are, but Andrew was highly skilled. And, when he wasn’t talking, he’d play Scottish music to set the scene.
  • By the time we arrived at Loch Ness, the skies had cleared up beautifully. It was still quite cold, but otherwise, a gorgeous day. And, boy, do those people feed the Loch Ness legend! You see toys and dolls and trinkets everywhere! Even the boats have sonar displays so you can see if there’s anything “below.” Sadly, we didn’t see Nessie, but it was a lot of fun anyway. The stories are great, and there is a lot of necessary intrigue to the waters because of their mineral saturation and density. We also tried “Highlands Hot Chocolate” on the boat, which is hot chocolate with whiskey.
  • It’s more of a straight shot home after Loch Ness as the sun is setting. This mostly meant a very, long late afternoon/early evening nap…for everyone.
  • We were starving by the time we arrived back in Edinburgh around 8:00 p.m., and therefore, just looking for a place nearby to eat. So, we popped into Ensign Ewart’s Pub—and were glad we did! First established in 1680, the place is very small, but adorable. We were lucky to find a table, and the food was awesome. We highly recommend the Scottish Venison Casserole. And the live music starts at 9:00 p.m. Oh, and it’s so small that there’s no stage. They just reserve a couple small tables near the bar for the musicians. It’s really traditional, and a great experience. A totally lovely way to end our fantastic day.
  • Day trip link – You’ll see lots of different Loch Ness and Highlands tours, but we both HIGHLY recommend this one. Our tour guide, Andrew, was phenomenal! (He was asked to give the tour for the Saudi royal family!) And we loved that this was a small group of people, not one of the huge buses. It is an extremely long day, and a long time sitting, but if these sites are on your list, this is the tour for you.

DAY 3:

  • This was our final, full day in Edinburgh, and our chance to really take in the city. Thankfully, we had a sunny day for exploring.
  • Edinburgh is not a huge city, so the hop on, hop off bus route only takes about an hour and a half. So, we did that first to see everything and get our bearings. (Read more about my thoughts on doing this here). Plus, it’s a great way to get an abbreviated history of the place.
  • Next, we toured Edinburgh Castle, the inspiration for Hogwarts. It’s right in the middle of the city, and overlooks EVERYTHING, which makes it great for photo taking on a clear day. It’s also quite large and, #nerdalert, reminded me a lot of Gondor from Lord of the Rings because it houses it’s own shops, restaurants, and chapel, not just the family’s living quarters. It’s very hilly, too, making it different in many ways from the other castles we saw on the trip. Since it was midday while we were there, we stopped in one of the on-site restaurants for a delightful lunch of tea, sandwiches, and scones. This only served to feed my obsession with Earl Grey tea and scones (try the lemon!).
  • Afterward, it was on to the Invisible Edinburgh tour, which was a blast. Biffy was our tour guide, and we chose her because she was leading “The Paths of Inspirational Women” tour. It’s likely the tour we would’ve chose from them anyway, but it made it more special since it was the day after International Women’s Day. The guides, as I mentioned, are all formerly homeless, so you hear their personal stories as well as the stories of Edinburgh on the walk. Included, was passing by the cafe where J.K. Rowling started writing the first Harry Potter book. Biffy’s boyfriend, Sonny, is also a guide, and joined us on the tour, so we were able to hear bits of his presentation as well. And one of the volunteer staffers came along, too, and we asked her questions about the organization and founding. They are doing incredible work, and we felt so privileged to join them for a few hours.
  • That night, we had dinner with one of Raechel’s friends from Atlanta who now lives there. It was really great to get her perspective on the city, the culture, and the country. She reinforced our love for these things, and definitely made us ready to return. Three days just wasn’t enough!
  • Hop On Hop Off Bus on Viator – Like most cities, there are a couple of options for this kind of thing. With our hotel’s location in Leith, this one wasn’t the best choice. We had to take the regular bus into the city center to catch it. But there was another tour company that stopped right outside our hotel, so that would’ve been better. Of course, we just had no idea until we arrived. So, this would be something you could probably wait on until you got to Edinburgh.

DAY 4:

  • Breakfast at the hotel, and then off to the airport for our Ireland adventure!
  • We hadn’t had time to do much shopping in Scotland up to this point, so most of this took place in the airport. Strangely, though, we found some good stuff, including our souvenirs and gifts. And did you know that shortbread originated in Scotland? You see the stuff EVERYWHERE, but we found a gourmet shop for it in the airport. I bought my mom lemon shortbread cookies for Mother’s Day, and the sweet clerk also gave me some clotted cream shortbread for myself. We were also told to try this stuff called “tablet” which is kind of a shortbread/candy hybrid. I brought some of that home, too, but wasn’t a fan. Too sweet!

You can check out all the trip photos here.

 

COUNTRY-SPECIFIC NOTES:

  • The Scottish people are VERY proud of their country and heritage. You see the Scottish flag, bagpipes, kilts, etc, everywhere you go. And many of them believe they should be their own rulers, rather than under the thumb of the English monarchy. Some of them are also quite happy to talk about that as well. 😉 There is a long, bitter, and bloody history there, and after you go on the tours and here the stories, you totally get it. The British Empire did a lot of mental, physical, and spiritual damage.
  • We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Waterfront, which was fine (and included breakfast!), but because Edinburgh has such limited public transportation options, we were a couple of miles north of the city in Leith. So, this meant we either take the bus, which sucks up much-needed time in the day, or a cab/Uber. So, we ended up paying much more for transportation here than anywhere else.
  • A number of things close early like restaurants and attractions, so double-check this stuff when planning.
  • As I mentioned in the last post, I got sick at the tail end of the England portion. If this happens to you, you’re in luck in Scotland! They had the best meds, which is a weird statement to make, I know. But they had this cold medicine that stopped up runny noses and made stuffed up noses run. I have no idea how this works, but it was miraculous. However, they also have the same limits on how much you can buy, like England, so I only walked away with two, small packs and had to restock in Ireland, which didn’t carry it.
  • You’ll find lots of little booklets with clan history everywhere, divided up by last name. I already had one from my aunt’s previous trip, but lots of the souvenir shops have them, if you’re looking for something like that to take home. You also, of course, see many types of plaids (tartans) for purchase that are associated with clans. It’s good to research this before you go, because there are a lot that look similar.
  • I was also delighted to see a poster in the airport for anti-trafficking. This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, and my foray into social justice. Edinburgh and Scotland seemed to be very focused on social justice issues from things we saw around the city and heard about.
  • In taking the Invisible Edinburgh tour, we discovered that there was a retail store they also operated. Unfortunately, it was closed by the time we finished the tour. Otherwise, we would’ve eagerly looked for our souvenirs there. We also didn’t make it to Social Bite, a social enterprise cafe, or HOME, their upscale restaurant. They are affiliated with Invisible Edinburgh and Biffy and Sonny also work there. Famous patrons include William and Kate, Leo di Caprio, and George Clooney. (Sonny said they were all nice, lovely people!) But I really wish we’d had the chance to support these places as well.
  • Even though we were in Edinburgh most of the time, we did use cash now and again, so it’s good to have some handy.
  • Edinburgh had the most efficient airport I’ve ever seen, and also the nicest employees. It may seem weird to make note of this, but it really impressed us. That’s just how different it was from other airports!
  • Fun fact: Scotland boasts the highest percentage of redheads in the world at 13%.

 

GENERAL TRIP NOTES AND ADVICE:

  • It took me a long time to find this site (like a year and a half), but we booked our trip through TripMasters. This lovely site allows you to choose exactly how many nights you’d like in each country (worldwide), in what order, and your mode of transportation as well. It also gives you the opportunity to bundle your hotel and activities. You can go with the cheapest hotels or even upgrade to nicer ones. We got a great deal, and I definitely recommend using this site if you don’t want to book everything separately.
  • These Clarks Cloudsteppers were my saving grace on this trip! I wore them most of the two weeks, and they made all the walking so much easier. I did end up with a couple of blisters, but they weren’t bad, and didn’t hurt while wearing these babies.
  • I love using Viator for trip activities and excursions. The app also allows you to keep vouchers there rather than printing them.
  • It depends how you like to travel, but we both liked being active and on the go. So, most lunches were just snacks we picked up or packed. Then we’d stop for nicer dinners.
  • As you can already tell from this post, Raechel and I are planners. So, we had a Google Sheet set up with what were doing each day and time, along with links and reservation numbers, track expenses, etc. This helped us maximize our time really well, and was awesome since we were planning a lot over email and phone while living in different cities.
  • Raechel had international data through her work phone, which served us VERY well. Otherwise, we were going to use AT&T’s international day pass, and just trade off days to split the costs.
  • Unfortunately for me, most places didn’t take AMEX (which was all I carried), so Raechel paid for a lot of the little stuff like meals, and I bought the big, online things like tours with my card to balance us out.
  • When we weren’t using the hop on, hop off bus or Underground (which was the vast majority of the time because Raechel is awesome at navigation), we used Uber. I would’ve definitely preferred Lyft, but it’s not in other countries yet. You can, of course, take the adorable taxis but I just love the ease of ride share apps, payments, tips, and splitting fares. (Use my link for an introductory discount.)
  • I got a head cold at the end of the week, and wish I would’ve brought cold meds, aspirin, etc, with me. I found all those things there, of course, but most everything comes in packs of 16 tablets, and you can only get two packs at a time…so, I made multiple trips in all three countries.

 

MY TRAVEL NECESSITIES:

  • We tried out these foot hammocks for the international flights. They may seem and look silly, and let’s face it, they are, but they made sleeping on the intercontinental flights a bit easier. We also had Delta Comfort seats, so we had more leg room. I was too tall to use them in the cheap seats, since my knees almost hit the seat in front of me, but Raechel is shorter, and used them in both spots successfully.
  • I travel with a number of doTerra essential oils, but for active trips, I especially recommend the Deep Blue Samples. These little gems are like Icy Hot, but better, and are fantastic at the end of the day on your feet or back.
  • I do not like hand sanitizer because it makes my hands feel sticky and gross. But I found these alcohol-free Babyganics wipes before my trip to India and now carry them with me everywhere. These make my hands feel clean and not sticky, and are great for travel and on the go—baby or not.
  • One of my friends who is a travel writer gave me this tip, and it’s a good one. Whether it’s blistering hot (hello, India!) or a beautiful day (hello, LA!), carrying electrolyte tabs or powder is a great idea to keep you replenished.
  • I don’t go anywhere without wrinkle release, because I hate ironing. And on international trips, I wasn’t sure what the iron situation would be anyway.
  • Love my Envirosax! I keep several in my purse at all times, but I also take them when traveling because they always come in handy. I even use the pouch they come in on trips for cords and things.
  • These Tide sink packets are great for short trip emergencies or long trips when you can’t access laundry facilities or don’t want to pay for them.
  • This silicone flat iron pouch is good for when you have limited counter space and need to rest a flat iron or curling iron on the floor or another surface.
  • We ended up buying a small bag of Epsom salt in England for our achy feet, but next time I’ll just take these travel packs.
  • For adapters and travel cords, I’ve had great luck with these options: this Belkin block is good for home and travel, this little Monster stays in my laptop bag at all times, and this Maxah universal plug has gone with me to five countries so far.
  • Sadly, my portable charger isn’t available any longer, but I prefer one like this that can charge different kinds of devices at once.
  • I do a cleanse about three times per year or so, but especially after extensive travel or when food quality has been bad (hear: fried carbs). This is a good option for newbies and is more gentle on your system, but I’ve used many kinds by this brand.

 

BONUS:

Because our families are both originally from the UK and Ireland (way, way back), Raechel and I both asked for Ancestry DNA kits for Christmas so we could get our results before the trip. That made our time even more fun and interesting, and we were on the lookout for our family’s last names and traces every where we went.

For the record, I’m 44% British, 37% Ireland/Scotland/Wales, as well as a little of this and that. But, really, you could just look at me and figure that out. 😉

 

Previously: England

Next up: Ireland

 

Our guide, Andrew (He's fantastic!)

If Narnia and Middle Earth had a baby, it would be the Scottish Highlands. This is us with Andrew, our tour guide.

 

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