Author: Eliz Armstrong

I live in New York City, where I work in Media Strategy and Planning for a global brand. In my spare time I budget and plan for adventures. I think I'm getting good at it - but you'll have to judge for yourself!

Use Multiple Resources To Plan Your Best Trip Ever

My husband and I just returned from a ten day trip to Scotland this week in honor of our dating anniversary (crazy to think we’ve been together for 12 years!)

I’ve always considered Scotland to be my favorite country, so I was excited when we found affordable tickets to Glasgow from the US a couple months ago. Every year we try to take a vacation during the week between our dating anniversary (August 25th) and the American holiday of Labor Day (the first Monday of September) because the timing works out beautifully for his job.

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Kilchurn Castle, Scottish Highlands, Golden hour on August 25, 2018

We both had separately been to Scotland before, but both only for long weekends. The thrill of planning this trip was that we had a much longer amount of time, and we wanted to see as much as we could! Probably sounds familiar to most travelers, no?

Although we had both been to Scotland in the past, it had been so long that we needed fresh information. When I logged onto Google to start our research, I was immediately struck by the number of options we had for our itinerary. CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW MANY CASTLES THERE ARE IN SCOTLAND?! TWO THOUSAND!!!!

By using a variety of planning resources, we were able to hone in on the best options for our ten day trip, and have a truly amazing time! Below I’ve outlined the list of tools we used, and the order they were leveraged:

  1. Friend Recommendations:

Before starting our research, we first emailed three close friends that we knew had gone to Scotland recently and asked for their highlights from their trips. We ended up using at least one recommendation from all three people, despite the fact that many of their trips were during different months and with different purposes (i.e. one person did a whisky tour and one person did an Outlander tour!) Their insights were invaluable to help us determine how many days/hours were needed for certain destinations – but most importantly, we must tip our hat to our friend Dustin for telling us to rent the smallest car possible for our road trip through the Highlands!

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Our small economy car for the single lane road on Isle of Skye!

 

2) Paper Guidebooks:

“You use guidebooks?!!” – you

“Yep.” – me

I don’t always purchase a paperback guidebook, but the longer the length of my trips, the more helpful I typically find them to be. For this trip we ordered the Rick Steves Scotland guidebook on Amazon and began by reading the intro section, where he recommends specific routes based on the number of days you have. The reason I chose Rick Steve’s guidebook over others like Lonely Planet was because his word choices often make me chuckle at their honesty or silliness – which adds some incredible levity to our trips.

Once Rick helped us decide which towns we would visit and for how long (yes, I personified our guidebook as if it were Rick Steves leading us himself!), we then read through his hotel suggestions for each location while cross-referencing their latest reviews and prices on TripAdvisor and Hotels.com. Sometimes we used his suggestions, and sometimes we chose ones we found on the booking sites.

3) TripAdvisor and Hotels.com:

I cannot emphasize enough how helpful TripAdvisor was for our trip! I’m not always the biggest TripAdvisor advocate after I had to write a glowing 5-star review of my favorite restaurant in my old NYC neighborhood in order to counteract some goober’s negative review that the place was “too nice for the area.” (TOO NICE? You gave a 1-star review about a restaurant being TOO NICE!? Ugh, some people.)

That being said, while planning, I found it difficult to obtain information about restaurants and hotels in small Highland towns through Google searching because the towns were so rural that many of the business websites were inadequate or non-existent. By scanning through TripAdvisor’s and hotels.com’s user-submitted photos, as well as mining through reviews by like-minded travelers, we were able to consistently stay in hotels and eat at restaurants during our trip that were perfect for our taste.

Lastly, I must mention that we also used the TripAdvisor app in real-time when we arrived in Edinburgh to help determine the best option free walking tour option after feeling overwhelmed by choice. Since our priority was to use a tour to get our bearings and get a deep dive on the city’s history, the stellar reviews of the Little Fish walking tour helped us find a terrific guide.

4) Instagram:

As many fans of Means To Travel know, my husband and I are really into Instagram (@meanstotravel and @mr.meanstotravel). We specifically loved using it for our Scotland trip planning because the interface makes it simple to find the most photographic locations as well as popular meal choices.

img_5207For example, before booking a table at restaurants that were well-reviewed on TripAdvisor, we’d do a quick Instagram search to learn the most popular menu items, make sure the recent food photos looked fresh and delicious, and lastly try to determine the typical clientele. Huge bonus points if the restaurant had its own Instagram account!

Instagram was also amazingly helpful at advising our packing decisions. During the last few days before we left, I did an Instagram search of many of the towns and restaurants that we were planning to visit in order to understand dress codes and weather needs. Needless to say, I spotted a lot of wind and raincoats, so I thankfully packed a lot of necessary sweaters, hats, and waterproofs!

Overall, I’d advise that it is important to diversify your research tools when planning a trip to make sure you have the best mix of information available. For my husband and me, it was helpful to combine our research resources across word of mouth, print, digital, and mobile platforms in order to get the latest and greatest details and tips.

Lucky for us modern travelers, we live in an era of crowd-sourced traveling, which puts SO MUCH power in our hands. Creating a meaningful and memorable trip has never been easier!

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Introducing: Piedmont – Italy’s great wine region

As you drive up and around the gently rolling hills of the Piedmont region in Italy, it becomes clear that the area is known for a specific key export:  wine.

Grape vines are everywhere.  AND if you have the pleasure of touring the area in the beginning of September as I did this year, you’ll be sure to spot several hardworking Italians tending their soon-to-be-harvested crops – just as their ancestors have done for centuries.

A Piedmont vineyard where a tractor has kicked up some dust while driving through the vines

A Piedmont vineyard where a tractor has kicked up some dust while driving through the vines

My boyfriend and I traveled to the region last month for a friend’s wedding and were shocked by the scarcity of American tourists. The region is about a two hour drive southwest of Milan and produces wines that rival those from Tuscany (in fact, the region’s famous Barolo wines are known as the “King of Wines”). The most famous of the Piedmont wines are from the towns of Barolo and Barbaresco, and we were lucky enough to tour both hillside villages while sipping their local products.

Tasting wine at Marchesi di Barolo

Tasting wine at Marchesi di Barolo

Vines in the Piedmont region

Vines in the Piedmont region

Because of the location of our friend’s wedding, we stayed in a very tiny town called Castiglione Tinella at the Albergo Castiglione B&B. While the hotel classifies itself as a B&B, I would argue that it is more like a small boutique hotel. Before the trip we decided to spend a little extra for a room with a shared balcony so we could sip our coffee in the morning while peering past the local buildings to the vineyards on the nearby hillside.

The door and window to our balcony at the hotel

The door and window to our balcony at the hotel

While the breakfast spread and friendly hotel staff were enough to justify the cost of our pleasant stay, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we wondered over to the hotel’s pool area on the outskirts of town! It looked like something out of a travel magazine.

The pool deck at Albergo Castiglione overlooking the neighboring hills

The pool deck at Albergo Castiglione overlooking the neighboring hills

Breakfast spread at Albergo Castiglione

Breakfast spread at Albergo Castiglione

They had an immaculately manicured garden area with an infinity pool that overlooked the surrounding hills. On one of the days we were there, the sky was so clear we were even able to see the Alps in the distance – roughly 100 miles away! If you squint, you can spot their snowy caps in the photo below. As someone who loves wine, scenery, and summertime, the scene felt like my personal Eden.

LOVING the view

LOVING the view

While the hotel experience and amenities were excellent, the location was about a half hour drive from the two aforementioned Piedmont towns that we were most interested in touring. Both Barolo and Barbaresco have their own distinct personalities, despite being quite close to each other as the crow flies. Barolo feels like a busy market town, complete with touristy kitsch, an old castle, and many enotecas (wine shops). Barbaresco is much smaller and more laid back, with the town running down a single road from the historic enoteca to the old tower (Torre di Barbaresco).

Marchesi di Barolo stores and ages its wine in these large oak barrels, which help add flavor

Marchesi di Barolo stores and ages its wine in these large oak barrels, which help add flavor

Wine bottles from the 1800's when the Marchesi di Barolo vineyard was first established!

Wine bottles from the 1800’s when the Marchesi di Barolo vineyard was first established!

Walking along the streets in the town of Barolo

Walking along the streets in the town of Barolo

View of the Enoteca Regionale from the main road in Barbaresco

View of the Enoteca Regionale from the main road in Barbaresco

After touring both towns, I find it difficult to recommend one over the other. When it came to wine, I preferred Barolo’s rich, luxurious reds. However, I enjoyed Barbaresco’s serene ambiance lacking crowds of tourists. While we were in Barbaresco, there was a point in the late afternoon (around 4:30pm) when we reached the top of the old tower and no one else was there – we had our own private 360-degree views for nearly ten minutes! How completely unfathomable to be alone at a tourist landmark in Europe in late summer!

Taking selfies on the top of the tower - because there was literally no one to take our photo!

Taking selfies on the top of the tower – because there was literally no one to take our photo!

View of the town of Barbaresco from the top of the tower (Torre di Barbaresco)

View of the town of Barbaresco from the top of the tower (Torre di Barbaresco)

We highly enjoyed our weekend in the Piedmont region, and recommend to anyone who loves wine that they should visit before it is “discovered” by more Americans.

Hotels:

Albergo Castiglione – Castiglione Tinella

Villa Pattono – Costigliole d’Asti

Restaurants:

Caffe Roma – Costiglione d’Asti

Verderame – Castiglione Tinella

Trattoria Antica Torre – Barbaresco

Divin – Barolo (good for a quick lunch)

Vineyards, Enotecas, and Tastings:

Marchesi di Barolo – Barolo

Ceretto – Alba (excellent tasting experience with great view)

Enoteca Regionale del Barolo – Barolo (automated wine tasting)

Enoteca Regionale de Barbaresco – (located inside a former 19th century church)

I’m A Little Different, And So Is My Travel Style

Growing up, I always felt that I was different from the other kids in school – but I couldn’t quite figure out how. In elementary and middle school I analyzed the differences in my body compared to the other girls to try to explain it. While I (of course) found some differences, they never panned out to be what I was searching to explain. By high school I still hadn’t cracked the secret, and I started to try various fashion styles and music to see if the ambiguous feeling had to do with my personal tastes. But no luck there either. When I would change my looks, the way I dressed, or the types of music I listened to in order to try to find the elusive “real me,” none of the changes ever felt right.

It’s taken twenty years since I first started exploring other “Eliz” options, and I feel I finally understand what the difference is: what makes me happy.

Miami Beach, May 2013

Miami Beach, May 2013

Here’s a good example. I’m only five years out of college and Ibiza is nowhere near the top of my travel list. If Eliz were a brand, Ibiza would be considered “off brand.” I don’t go clubbing. I don’t research trendy restaurants. You are far more likely to find me on a winery tour than a pub crawl.

I work at a media agency, where I often joke that I’m a Gen X’er in a Millennial body. While that’s not necessarily true outside of my taste in television (which may actually be closer to Baby Boomer status), I’ll admit that I have very mature travel tendencies. I always opt for the nicest hotel we can afford. When my boyfriend and I went to Vancouver in 2013, we were twenty-five year old tourists who stayed at the Four Seasons because we found a good deal. More often than not we are the youngest people in our hotels/B&B’s by ten to twenty years because our top priority is a very clean, comfortable pillow.

Further, I must admit I haven’t stayed in a hostel in eighteen months. Some Millennial readers and travelers may frown on that decision, citing the importance of the camaraderie and affordability that hostels provide. By all means, you do you! While I like meeting new people, I like nice mattresses more. Nice mattresses make me a very happy tourist.

Side Note: I have not written off hostels all together. I will most likely stay in one again.

With that said, I wanted to make sure to disclose all of these preferences and priorities to you, dear reader, because I am a travel blogger who writes about budgeting for travel. Meaningful travel may mean different things to different people, but the end goal is always the same:  a truly enjoyable vacation.

I hope you budget for travel that you know will make you happy. The good news is that you know yourself best! You probably already have an idea about what kind of travel would bring you the most joy at your personal budget level. My only advice is that you should always trust your gut. I’m not here to try to tell you what to do, I’m here to help and inspire you to do it.  🙂

Like I said, I’m a little different…and I finally know why. I’ve come to terms with my tendencies to travel above my age bracket. I’ve accepted and embraced this (as well as other older-skewing interests) about myself…and I hope you will, too!