about We are Akila and Patrick. Our minds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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Tag: RTW Travel Planning
on not really picking that perfect greek island

Views from Santorini

Views from Santorini

I was reading CNN Travel yesterday on how to pick the perfect Greek island out of the 1,400 islands scattered along the Aegean.  Sure, there are the obvious choices:  Santorini and Mykonos, Crete and Rodos.  But, how do you pick a few spots to visit out of the thousands?  How do you know that these will be the perfect Greek islands for you?

Peacock in Kos

Peacock in Kos Peacock in Kos
Chewy and Abby with peacocks

Peacocks in Kos (and Chewy and Abby completely oblivious to the peacocks)

I get these questions all the time because I've kind of become an unofficial travel planner.  People --- friends, family, blog readers, and random strangers at the grocery store --- will ask me where I suggest they go, what they should do, and, most importantly, what they should be eating.  I send out epic emails that rival the Russian writers for length, depth, and excessive use of adjectives, with suggested itineraries and speculations on weather, the number of tourists, and the potential exchange rate.  These emails tend to be spattered with capital letters, enunciations, and exclamation marks when I get overly excited about Turkey ! Italy ! Japan !  and China !  Happily, people tell me they like my suggestions so I continue doling out the advice.

Street in Rodos

Shopping street in Rodos

But, my own travel planning is a bit more haphazard .  I have a master spreadsheet where I keep track of where we're going and what we'll be doing, but, for the most part, we go where we can find reasonable accommodations and transportation.  We're not particularly picky about finding that one perfect place to visit.

Statue in Rodos Rodos Greek art

Art in Rodos Archaeological Museum

You see, anywhere could be perfect and anywhere could be a disaster.  We've gone to cities touted by everyone as the next best thing and we found it completely uninteresting or horrible.  We've gone to places that nobody else noticed and loved it.  We never know what we're going to like until we get there.  And, I posit that, no matter how much you research and plan, you cannot know what will be the perfect Greek island.

Colorful houses in Kos

Shops in Rodos

Colorful houses in Kos

Vibrant colors in Kos and Rodos

It's like this: you have a favorite Mexican restaurant that you've eaten at for years and years.  You go there all the time.  You think it's the best Tex-Mex you'll ever eat.  So, one day,  you take your best friend to that Mexican restaurant.  She sees the crowds of people lining up to eat that food and she's excited.  Enchiladas!  Tacos!  Guacamole!  But, it turns out that the head chef is sick that day, stuck in bed with the flu.  The second tier chef is nervous and everything comes out underseasoned and underspiced.  Your friend looks at you like you're crazy.  She asks you why you would think that this is the best Tex-Mex restaurant ever?


Fishing boats in Santorini

It's happened to all of us, right?  We rave about something and it turns out to have an off day.  It's the reason that most of us try restaurants at least twice before writing them off.  But, when we travel, we don't usually have the luxury of coming back over and over again.  Our visit to that spot might be our only visit there because it's too expensive or time-consuming to keep coming back to a place that we don't really like.

And, I think that's what happened to us in Greece.

The truth is [just spit it out, Akila] . . . the truth is, we didn't really like Greece.  We spent a month hopping around the different islands and a week in Athens and, generally, we gave the country a "meh."

Abby in Santorini

Abby in Oia, Santorini

I hate that we are so unenthusiastic about this place because everybody and their brother has told me how magical they've found Greece, how the beaches are amongst the most beautiful in the world, and the food is simply to die for.

Of course, we thought the views in Santorini were absolutely amazing (pictures to come) and we adored the calm, relaxed beaches in Naxos.  We found a few delicious restaurants and I would love to find Greek yogurt in the United States that's as creamy and rich as what we ate in Greece.

Santorini sunset

Santorini sunset

But, that's only a small part of our trip.  In all fairness, we weren't particularly impressed.  I doubt that we will ever return.  Maybe it was because we had just left Turkey which is among our favorite countries in the world.  Or maybe we didn't get the Greek charm that everyone tells us we will find.  Or maybe it was because we were there in June when the tourists flock to the country.  Or maybe it was because it was so overwhelmingly hot there that we had to limit our time outside.  Or maybe we just don't like Greece.

airing that dirty laundry abroad

Clothes at an Italian market

Clothes for sale in Siena

The dirty little secret about long-term travel --- that is, the reason that most long-term travelers sing the praises of hostels and apartments rather than hotels --- boils down to one thing: laundry.  Others may tell you stories about how big hotels are anonymous entities and hostels present a local's focus and apartments give us the ability to venture into a neighborhood and all of those nice things -- and yes, I agree -- but, really and truly, the reason that most of us prefer hostels and apartments is because we need to get our laundry done.

Laundry is a difficult, difficult thing when you're traveling about as much as we do.  Not only is it our most hated chore, it is also the most frequent time suck.  So, here are the five things you need to know about doing laundry abroad:

Washing machines the size of Chihuahuas.

Americans have monster washing machines.  I miss this sort of appliance and the days when we could dump a week's worth of laundry into a single load.  In Europe and Asia, I'm lucky if I can fit two pairs of jeans and two t-shirt in.  Apparently, European/Asian/African washing machines are made for Chihuahua-sized apparel.

Let's watch Braveheart while the washing machine cycle finishes.

Stick your laundry in the morning and you can do any of the following things before your washing cycle ends:

- Watch Braveheart, all 3 hours and 2 minutes of it, plus you can add in a half hour Friends episode, if you so desire.

- Drive from Zagreb, Croatia , to Budapest, Hungary .

- Make my favorite apple pie , let it cool, and have a slice.

- Take a decent pass at learning basic phrases in Turkish, Italian, and French with our favorite language learning guide .

Because not only are non-American washing machines teeny tiny, but the washing machine manufacturers here apparently follow the principle of energy inefficiency.

Actually, I have a theory on why the washing machines are so slow here.  You see, instead of using electricity, the machines are powered by a system of highly trained mice that keep the machine spinning and spinning, which would also explain why every single thing I own has at least two or three mouse-teeth-sized holes.  The socks I keep losing must be the price they take for running the washing machines.  Keep running, my little washing machine mice overlords.

Oh, you wanted clean and un-holey clothes?  Sorry, can't help you out there.

After three years of constant washing in mice-operated washing machines meant for Chihuahuas and extraordinarily patient people, all my clothes have taken on a middle-of-the-winter English gray sheen.  This gray, if you haven't been to England in the wintertime, is not a pretty chic charcoal gray nor is it a pleasant light gray, but is rather the type of gray that sends grown men whimpering for sunny blue skies and fruity pink umbrella-topped drinks.

Dryers.  What dryers?

Once the clothes come out of the washing machine, in they go to the dryer . . . oh, right, this isn't the U.S.  No dryers here.  Now, I do understand why dryers waste electricity and there's no need for dryers in hot, sunny countries like Namibia and India.  But, England?  People, I went for weeks without seeing sunny sky in that country and our clothes used to take two solid days to dry.  It was a game we played: the sun comes out for two hours, rush out and hang them, oh darn - rain's coming, rush them back in and set them by the heater, and scream in frustration.

Get your hands in those suds.

Often, and all too often at that, hotels don't have laundry machines and expect that you'll be willing to shell out enough to buy your own washing machine to get a simple pair of pants laundered.  So, we handwash.

Handwashing is relatively simple: stick the water in a tub, toss in some detergent, and turn your own hands into a rinse cycle, wring out the soap, clean with water again, and wring dry.  Of course, this isn't an all too bad option but when faced with five days worth of clothes, hand-washing is akin to a really good workout at your local gym.  (And believe me, neither of us are nearly this cute when we're handwashing our laundry.)

Speak that laundry language.

Sometimes, we have to take our laundry to a laundromat because we don't have a washing machine or a tub.  And, in many countries, especially Thailand , Cambodia, and China, laundry services are often cheap and plentiful --- something like one in four stores in Cambodia offer laundry services.  Cue the hilarious conversations about how we want our laundry done in languages we don't understand, meaning that, more often than not, our clothes devolve further into their manky English-gray, holey condition.  [That being said, the Thai and Cambodian laundry services are probably the best in the world --- they even iron your underwear!]  And, for the love of your wardrobe, please never travel with anything that needs to be dry clean only because you might as well just douse them into the Ganges and set fire to them --- you're never going to have those duds in wearable condition again.

As it is, the first thing happening when we head back to the States in the fall is that every single piece of clothing I currently wear is going straight into the trash because even the needy don't need my awful cast-off clothes.  I'm counting down the days when my white shirts are white and my black pants are black again.

how to ship your car to europe

Our car in Cornwall

Our CR-V sitting in front of our Cornwall house

Apparently, the only people interested in shipping their cars from the United States to Europe are military personnel and the super rich mega-billionaires, because there are a whole bunch of companies related to those two groups and absolutely nothing on the Internet about how an average person can ship their car to Europe.  I mean, I've got to think that there are other people than us interested in doing this, though, to be honest, in the three months we have been roaming through Europe, we haven't seen any other American license plates.

Nonetheless, I'm going to spell it out for you because I've got to think that we aren't completely unique in this world.  (And, if we are, I really would like to be unique for a better reason than that we decided to ship our American car from the U.S. to Europe.).  This post is full of nitty gritty details and some behind-the-scenes chaos that only we seem to land ourselves into.

1.  Why did we ship our car to Europe?

Trains/ferries were out because of the dogs: Most ferries do not allow dogs if you are a foot passenger and some trains do not allow dogs at all.  And, we knew we wanted to spend a lot of time in the countrysides, meaning that a car is essential.

Car rental was too expensive : Renault offers a 6-month car lease in Europe , which includes car insurance and AA service (similar to AAA in the U.S.) and we could have done two different car leases plus an additional one month lease.  When I priced it out, Renault came in at a whopping $16,000 for a compact automatic car for the 13 months.  (If we had rented a manual shift, teeny compact, it would have run more around $9,000.)  Eeks!

We couldn't purchase because we weren't residents: We looked into purchasing a car in Europe but, just like in the USA, in order to purchase a car, we needed to have residency in Europe.  Some travelers had purchased cars in Europe without establishing residency by using expired license plates, but we didn't feel comfortable doing that.

So, our last option was shipping our own Honda CR-V .  At first, the process seemed completely insurmountable but, as we broke down the issues and talked to the shipper over and over again, it became manageable.

2.  How much does shipping a car cost?

Here's the break-down of costs for the entire year:

Item Cost (all in USD except as noted)
Shipping car from Charleston, USA, to Thamesport, UK $1395
Marine insurance for transit $75
Worldwide car insurance through Clements International $1518 (for the year)
Car registration in Alabama $150
Agency/X-Ray Customs Fee in UK 435 GBP (approximately $693 USD)
Return shipment (estimated) $1470
Return fees (estimated) $500
Total $5801
Additional fees held ON DEPOSIT to be returned when we leave the UK

2347 GBP

So, that made the decision REALLY simple.  For less than $6,000 USD we could drive our own very large, comfortable car for the entire time rather than shelling out an extra $10,000 for a compact car that would barely fit our stuff.  Of course, we have to pay for fuel and service costs (such as oil changes, etc.), but we would need to do that with a rental car, and we've discovered that our Honda CR-V actually gets better gas mileage than many of the European cars that we've rented.

3.  Do you have to pay taxes/customs/duties?

The EU and UK have a "temporary importation exemption" to the general importation of car duties , which allows non-UK/EU citizens to import their car for up to 6 months, as long as the car is used for tourism purposes and the car is not left or disposed in the EU/UK.  In addition, the EU/UK allow cars to be imported without paying taxes if the individual has a limited work assignment or is a student for longer than 6 months.

If you've been paying attention, you must have realized that we are staying longer than 6 months so . . . I had to ask for an exemption from the tourist exemption.  I emailed the UK customs officials and explained that we are staying for 13 months, have already booked our departure ticket, and I will be writing and selling my writing about my trip to the EU.  The UK Customs Officials responded in three weeks and notified me that they would grant my exemption because I have a writing assignment that ends on a specified date.

Read more about the UK/EU Customs requirements here .

4.  How did you find car insurance?

The Green Card is a document recognized in over 40 countries, including all the countries in Europe, which certifies that the person holding the Green Card has minimal insurance coverage in those particular countries he/she is driving through.  The Green Card is not itself insurance, but is rather proof of insurance in many, many countries.

So, in order to drive through Europe and be an American traveler, you must have insurance that meets the Green Card requirements.  We found only two companies that will underwrite this type of insurance: Geico and Clements International.  Geico wanted to charge us about $7000 for the year.  When Clements --- an insurance company focused on dealing with expats --- quoted us $1518, we both laughed out loud --- they only wanted a few hundred more than we were paying for minimal car insurance to keep our car registered in Alabama while we traveled!

We have been INCREDIBLY pleased with Clements --- their service is prompt, responsive, and much cheaper than anything else we've looked at.  We are also using them for health and electronics insurance coverage, and several of my travel blogger friends have told me that they are also switching to Clements for gear insurance because Clements actually covers expensive amounts of camera and computer equipment while traveling.  Yay for Clements!

The only thing that we absolutely needed in order to get the insurance was a UK address to which they could ship the Green Card.  So, if you're going through Clements, keep that in mind.

5.  How is the shipping supposed to work?

Here's how the whole thing was supposed to work out:

a.  16 weeks before Car Arrival Date (that is, the date we wanted the car to arrive, shortened to CA Date below): Email UK customs officials regarding exemption of temporary import duties.

b.  16 weeks before CA Date:  Begin corresponding with car import agency.  We worked with Schumacher Cargo Logistics , who as far as we can tell, is the only company out there that will actually deal with individuals and not companies.  Schumacher is a go-between and deals with the real cargo logistics folks that do the actual shipping back and forth.  Schumacher has a limited number of places from the United States East Coast from which they can ship --- they told us they can ship from near Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; and Jacksonville, Florida.  In England, they only ship to Thamesport, Kent.

c.  13 weeks before CA Date:  Finish filling out paperwork, including sending payment to Schumacher (or other shipping company.)

d.  8 weeks before CA Date:  Drive to shipping yard and drop off car.  Leave yourselves plenty of time to drop off the car because the shipping office we had been told to drop off the car at was incredibly confused and spent almost half an hour trying to find out where we needed to go.  They finally figured out the shipping yard and dropping off the car was the easiest part.  It took us about one minute to drop off the car, give the guy our bill of sale and title, key, and walk away.  (Though it was a bit nerve-wracking to give all that important information to a random person.)

e.  Wait, wait, wait.

f.  CA Date:  Receive confirmation that the car has arrived.  The car arrives anywhere between 4 to 8 weeks after delivering it to the shipping yard, so your car might have to sit in the warehouse, in which case you will be charged warehouse fees of about 10 GBP per day.  Assuming all goes as planned, you should receive confirmation from the shipper that your car has been offloaded, at which point you will need to pay them via bank transfer the customs/duties fees to be held on deposit, and then you can pick up the car once they receive the fees.

g.  One week after the CA Date:  Receive bill of sale and title from Schumacher by courier, shipped to a UK address.

6.  How did the whole thing ACTUALLY work out?

Well, the whole thing was an unmitigated DISASTER from front to end. On the day we dropped the car off, we drove around Charleston for an hour and a half to four different shipping locations because Schumacher couldn't figure out exactly where our car needed to be sent.  Then, the car was supposed to arrive sometime between 4 to 8 weeks after dropping the car off, but we are pretty confident that they forgot about our car, and didn't send us confirmation that the car had shipped until after Patrick prodded them multiple time.  So, we didn't actually receive the car until 11 weeks after we shipped it, meaning we had to rent a car in England for 2 weeks, which we didn't expect.

We also didn't know that we were supposed to pay the customs amount via bank transfer, meaning that we had to hole up in an internet cafe, talking to my Dad over cell phone to help us do the bank transfer because my bank requires a "SafePass" keycode which must be sent to an American cell phone number in order to transfer large amounts of money to international banks.  We picked up the car and it smelled like the worst kind of awful, awful stale cigarette smoke --- though neither of us smoke --- and we couldn't get the smell out for weeks.  And, then, after we had the car in hand, it turned out that Schumacher lost our original bill of sale and there is no way for us to get another one from Honda, meaning that the copy Patrick made is the only version we have.

Our advice to others planning to ship a car:

- Set aside a lot more time than you expect at either end --- we were so happy that we stayed in England for a solid month after the car was supposed to arrive because it gave us flexibility when the car didn't get there in time.

- Make copies of EVERYTHING and keep hard copies and electronic copies in several places.

- Set aside a lot more money than you think you'll need.  We didn't expect to pay the deposit and were so glad we had extra money sitting in that bank account then.

- Figure out how to do international bank transfers from an international location well beforehand.  Bank of America offers a $25 SafePass card which we have now purchased which lets us easily make international bank transfers from anywhere in the world.

- Put an air deodorizer in your car before you hand it over to the shipping company.

- If your car locks up its radio system when the battery is disconnected, remember to take the PIN code for your radio.

- Smile and take a lot of very deep breaths.

Ultimately, we have our car and it's wonderful being able to drive such a large and comfortable vehicle.  We get all sorts of curious looks about our license plates and one very drunk fellow in Spain nearly fell over as he perused the Steelers logo on the front of the car.  We've been working our four wheel drive hard in Italy because we're staying in an area with mostly rural dirt roads, and we can't imagine storing all of the dog food and extra supplies in a smaller car.

If you see a Honda CR-V with Alabama license plates in Europe, that's us!  Honk if you see us!

[And, I'm sure I've left out all sorts of questions that people have, so leave a comment with thoughts, questions, or just "Hey, we saw your car!"]

two years!

Two years! We have been permanent travelers for 730 days.  And, boy, have we done a lot in this last year.

South Africa banner

South Africa : We started off the year in beautiful South Africa, one of the most interesting and varied countries we have visited in the last two years.  We saw unbelievable wildlife throughout South Africa: from the lions and giraffes at Kruger , majestic elephants at Addo , whales and sharks at Gansbaii , and penguins on the Cape Drive .  We considered the after-effects of Apartheid and the way we were treated as an interracial couple .  We slowed down on the Wild Coast , flew through the trees of Tsitsikamma , took in the amazing scenery of Table Mountain , and the magnificent flowers at Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town .  And, of course, we ate: truly South African foods like bunny chow, malva pudding, and biltong ; at high class restaurants like La Colombe ; and at new versions of what we thought we knew, like at Waffle House in South Africa .

Africa-in-Focus banner

Namibia and Botswana :  Immediately after South Africa, we launched into three weeks of camping and driving overland through Namibia and Botswana with Africa-in-Focus.  We learned a lot about the ups and downs of taking a group tour and an overland expedition through two of the most remote countries in the world.  And, we fell in love with Namibia, from its mountains of red sand , jaw-dropping wildlife teeming at the watering holes , the huge herds of elephants , and the astonishing 25 lions we saw in 24 hours .  We touched cheetahs that have been raised as family pets and watched smelly seals play together .  And, in Botswana, local mokoro oarsmen pulled us through the Okavango Delta and a hippo nearly knocked over our boat in Chobe National Park .

Zambia banner

Zambia and Zimbabwe :  We wound up our Africa-in-Focus tour in Zambia at Victoria Falls.  The Zambian side of Victoria Falls did not impress but then we jumped into Devil’s Pool on top of the falls and saw the craziness we had undertaken on the Zimbabwe side of the Smoke That Thunders.  After three weeks camping and hanging out mostly with tourists, we were thrilled to glimpse traditional Zambian cuisine and culture in one of the best cooking classes we have taken in the last two years.

Even now, our hearts ache for Africa.  Africa, as a continent, touched our souls and fed our spirits in a way that no other continent has --- perhaps because of its sheer wildness, amazing variety, and the warm-hearted people who welcomed us at every turn.  We hope to go back very, very soon.

United States banner

United States :  And, then, we were back in the United States for a very special birthday that we celebrated in high style .  We started off roadtripping with the dogs --- a whole new adventure --- by spending four months roadtripping through the Southeast.  We ate our way through delicious pizza in Atlanta , lipsmacking traditional Southern fare in gray and green Savannah , nouveau cooking in Charleston , and finally wound up in mountainous Asheville, one of our favorite cities on the planet.

Jamaica banner

Jamaica: For our tenth anniversary, we hopped down to Jamaica for some unmitigated luxury at Couples San Souci, before returning to my parents’ home in Alabama to reorganize before heading on our next big adventure.

Queen Mary 2

Queen Mary 2: On July 27, 2011, Chewy, Abby, Patrick, and I boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Brooklyn, New York, to sail for England.  We spent seven days in high style , where Chewy and Abby had a professional kennelmaster who fed them and cleaned up after them (much to our relief), and Patrick and I lived it up in our balcony suite.  We spent our days hanging out with the dogs, taking high tea, searching for the best fruitcake I have ever eaten, attending astronomy lectures, and eating way too much food for our own good. *More posts about the Queen Mary 2 are coming soon.*


England: To introduce the dogs to England and take advantage of England in the summer, we stayed far from big cities and spent a month in bucolic Cotswolds and Cornwall.  We spent a magical evening wandering through Stonehenge, lazy days roaming through lovely Bath, the golden-hued Cotswolds villages, and the peaceful gardens of England --- including the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the sustainable Eden Project.  We discovered the wonder that is clotted cream and asked ourselves on more than one occasion why we had never tasted clotted cream before last month. *Posts about England are coming soon.*

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Spain: An overnight ferry in the pet-friendly Cap Finistere brought us from Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain, where we spent a quick morning roaming around the Guggenheim, before heading to leafy green Madrid.  I remembered more of my college Spanish than expected and we reveled in the relaxed schedule of the Spanish day: lazy mornings, two hour lunches, afternoons spent wandering through world-class museums and gorgeous old parks with dogs roaming everywhere, late nights spent lingering over tapas, and a pre-bed dessert of churros con chocolate.  We are currently in Barcelona, doing much of the same and also incorporating a bit of beach time into our life.  Suffice it to say, we love Spain. *Posts about Spain are coming soon.*

And that’s been our year.  Whew!  We have done a lot and been to so many places that, at times, we wake up and wonder where we are right now.  In the next year, we are going to be in France, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England, and the Netherlands.  By the time our third year travel anniversary rolls around, we will be back on the Queen Mary 2, heading toward the United States.

Sometimes, I think that this next year might be the end of our permanent travels and that when we return to the United States, we’ll settle down, buy a house, and live normal, respectable lives.  But, then, I remember that today I am within a stone’s throw from a cafï¿œ that serves chocolate that I would dunk my head face-first in and eat, and I wonder why we would ever quit traveling.  Either way, I love sharing our crazy journey with you.  Thank you for being here with us as we start our third nomadic year.