5 Reasons to Visit Mexico City: #1 Constitution Plaza

Every year, on September 15th, the President of Mexico comes out of the Presidential Palace and cries out “Long live Mexico!” A gigantic crowd responds “Viva!” That is, “yes, long may it endure!” It is an impressive and moving demonstration of patriotic fervor (watch it below). This is Zocalo, the Plaza of the Constitution, the heart of Mexico City.

Ever since seeing this plaza in various Mexican series, I had wanted to see it. I was fascinated by the way people gathered there before the president and showed their love for their country. I was fascinated by the classic Mexican architecture around it. I was fascinated by the history of place, going back to the pre-colonial period. It was high on my list.

Our hotel was on Reform Avenue, which I will consider in a later post. We made our way down that avenue past its numerous monuments to the Calle Francisco Madero. You enter it right next to the impressive Palace of Fine Arts. The Calle Madero is the principal connector of the plaza to the rest of the city. On this road, you will find innumerable shops, restaurants, churches, and other points of interest. It is worth a slow walk. This needs to be a part of your trip, as well as a jaunt a few streets over to the oldest bakery in Mexico City, called The Ideal.

When we entered the plaza, the first thing that struck my eyes was the large cathedral to the left. It is, in fact, the largest cathedral in Latin America. The size of the cathedral is not as apparent, though, because the plaza itself is so huge. It also is one of the largest in the world. I took numerous pictures, but it was hard to capture the spirit of the place in a photo. It is so extensive with so many things going on that pictures do not really do it justice. Continue reading “5 Reasons to Visit Mexico City: #1 Constitution Plaza”

How Three Foreign Cities Began to Feel Like Home

Old Cairo
In the middle of the giant, sprawling city of Cairo is Old Cairo, an old, walled city from the Middle Ages. It is now filled with shops, restaurants, mosques, coffee shops, and markets. According to our guide, it is the place where Egyptians feel most at home. There, in its coffee shops, the famous Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz wrote his books.

The architecture of Old Cairo is different than that of the West. There are minarets, intricate geometric patterns, domes, and other patterns that make it feel foreign, especially for those who have traveled little. This was definitely true for me and for my daughter. I had not traveled outside of the United States in 25 years. My daughter had never done so. It was night time, and the city was teeming with people. This is generally true in Old Cairo, but this was Ramadan. They had fasted all day, and now it was time to enjoy some conviviality with family and friends. Old Cairo was full to the brim. You may recall a scene in a movie where there is a car trying to escape or move in the midst of a crowd of people. That’s what it felt like.

After having traveled two days to get to Egypt, we were tired, and the experience of Old Cairo was a bit overwhelming. We got checked into our hotel, and we sat outside. Our guide said, “Do you want to go for a walk?” We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know how safe Egypt was. All we knew was what we had read in reviews of Egypt’s safety, including the ominous warnings from the State Department. So, we were cautious. We walked around and were greeted by many people. Our guide said to us, “No one is going to harm you in Egypt.” We arrived safely back at our hotel without incident.

That night, I went up on the roof where the restaurant was. They had no alcoholic beverages in Old Cairo. I did not yet know to order their delicious juices. So, I ordered a Sprite and went out on the small veranda that overlooked the city. I saw the people. I saw the whirling dervishes. I saw the festivity. From up on top of the hotel, it felt much more peaceful. I was there in Egypt! Continue reading “How Three Foreign Cities Began to Feel Like Home”

Is It Safe to Travel in Other Countries?

Should anyone even think about traveling to Egypt? Isn’t it the Middle East? Isn’t it dangerous? Those were usually the first questions I got when I decided to travel to Egypt.

I was talking to one woman about going to Egypt with us. She is experienced in international travel. Her daughter lives in Germany. But when she read what the State Department said about traveling to Egypt, she was a bit concerned. The State Department gave Egypt a level 3 warning: reconsider travel. Why? Because of Covid (at the time) and terrorism. Then, I looked at Germany. I realized that it was on the same level due to terrorism and Covid. I was rather shocked by that because almost everybody would consider Germany a safe place to visit. You can find all sorts of dire warnings about most countries.

So, is Egypt safe to visit? Continue reading “Is It Safe to Travel in Other Countries?”

How I Learned to Love Layovers

Key Idea: Layovers can be an amazing opportunity to see one more place on your vacation.

After paying $1,000 for two Covid tests in order to enter Egypt and Germany, we had a whole day before our flight would leave from Houston to Frankfurt, Germany. We decided to see the downtown and visit the museum of natural history. We called an Uber. This was my second Uber ride. The Uber driver offered us water and said, “You can call me Tex.” I asked him if we could do a slight detour and see the downtown our way to the Natural History Museum. He said, “I have never had anyone ask me that before, but I would be happy to do that. I have lived here all my life, and I can tell you all about it.” We enjoyed a nice tour of the downtown, a wonderful visit to the natural history museum, and quiet time in a beautiful park nearby shortly after.

This introduced to me to an important idea. You can use your layovers to see and experience more places. You don’t have to just wait in the airport. You can see something amazing, like the Eiffel Tower.

As I planned our second trip to Egypt, I purchased a flight that was extremely short by standards of flights to Egypt. It would go through Rome, have only a one and a half hour layover, and then arrive in Cairo after only 17 hours. I thought it was amazing.

Then, Alitalia went bankrupt, and that flight was cancelled. They put us on another flight. This flight went through Paris. It was much longer, not only because of the distance but also because of an 8 hour layover in Paris both ways! But here was an opportunity! We had two options for starting our trip: spend 8 hours in Charles De Gaulle airport or go see the Eiffel Tower. Is that even a question?

I looked into various options, and I was a little nervous about being able to do it in the time allotted. One thing I learned later, though, was that once you have checked in and checked any bags you have, you don’t need nearly as much time to get back to your gate. You don’t need the traditional 3 hours for an international flight and 2 for a domestic flight.

The key question for sightseeing during layovers is this: what do you do with your carry-on bags? On this trip, I decided to hire a driver and van to take us there and back. I was hopeful that they would keep our luggage, but I wasn’t sure.

Later, I discovered that there are other options for this. There are numerous places where you can pay $5 or so to store your luggage for a day while you walk around a town. You can use the web site Bounce to see what places are available and how much they are. I used this service in Madrid. We arrived by train, stored our luggage in a hotel, and then explored the downtown before we went to our hotel near the airport. It cost us about $10 a piece and saved us a couple of hours of driving around.

We arrived in Paris on a beautiful, crisp fall morning. We made our way to the gate, full of anticipation. As we neared the gate to exit, we heard a loud bang like a gun going off! I thought to myself, “Wow. This is it. I am in the midst of a terrorist attack.”

Shortly thereafter, someone came by and told us. “It’s nothing to worry about. The French police just blew up a bag that was left alone.” So, if you are traveling through Paris, make sure you don’t leave your bag alone. The French police may blow it up.

We met our driver, and drove through Paris. We arrived and saw the Seine river and all the buildings around it. We went up the Eiffel Tower, and we saw the wonder of Paris on a beautiful clear day. Our daughters were enraptured by the city. It was a perfect and magical day and a total success.

The layover on the return was not as great, but it still worked. We had an 8 hour layover in Paris and then a 5 hour layover in Boston. We did not go into Paris again because everybody was too tired. But we did go into Boston. We ended up walking a long way and enjoying it, but everyone was cold after spending two weeks in Egypt. I am glad we did it, but, with all due respect to Boston, Paris is a hard act to follow.

I took this idea and kept it in mind. When we went to the Dominican Republic in January 2023, my original flight was perfect. But . . . they cancelled it. Once again, they offered me a flight that was very different. I saw one that featured a 16 hour layover in Newark, New Jersey. It seemed like a lot, but I thought, “Here is an opportunity.” I took it, and my daughter and I spent the night in Times Square, once again getting to see an amazing part of the world for which we did not have to take an extra trip.

When I am picking out flights, I consider very seriously those with long layovers because I love them. They give you an opportunity to see one more place without paying for another plane ticket.

Thanks for taking time to read this post. Have you had a layover you enjoyed? I would love to hear about it in the comments below. I hope to see you again. Please share or subscribe below!

The Problem with Traveling by Airplane

The problem with traveling by airplane is not that they crash but that they sometimes don’t work. This means you may get stuck.

That’s the reality of traveling, but it’s especially disappointing when traveling internationally. It can wreak havoc with your trip or end it.

This is one of the risks that you have to take when traveling internationally. If you can, it’s best to allow margins in your trips in case things go wrong. The worst case scenario is that you get there early and can do more things in the country you are visiting.

Plane trouble was magnified in the time of Covid, but I have had some crazy experiences with plane trouble that had nothing to do with it. In this post, I want to share a few examples to help you know what you are up against.

Egypt
We flew from Knoxville to Houston. From Houston, we would fly to Germany and then on to Egypt. We got onto the plane in Houston, and it all looked good. Then, over the speaker, we heard the bad news, the flight would be delayed. There was a maintenance issue with the electronics, and it had to be checked out.

The problem with this delay is that we only had a one and a half hour layover in Germany. No problem, I thought. We can just get a later flight into Cairo. That’ll be fine. However, being the person that I am, I wanted to check what flights were available from Germany to Cairo. Ok. There was a problem. There were no other flights from Germany to Cairo that night. What that meant was that our Covid test for Egypt would no longer valid (see my explanation of Covid tests and international travel here). We also could not enter Germany because Americans weren’t allowed to enter at that time. We could be stuck perpetually in the German airport like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

I got up and went to speak with one of the flight attendants to explain the issue. He said, “This is going to take a while. We will have you talk to one of our representatives, and they will arrange new flights for you.”

A few moments after that, I went outside to talk to one of United’s representatives. I explained to him my situation. He clicked away at his keyboard for a few seconds and then said to me. “OK. Here’s what you can do. You can fly into Istanbul, Turkey. Your Covid test will still be good to enter Turkey. Then, you can get a ride to the hospital downtown and get a new Covid test. You can stay at a hotel in Istanbul and then get a flight to Cairo the next day.”

I looked at him with disbelief. “Uhhh . . . that is way, way outside my comfort zone.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Alright. We can put you up in a hotel for tonight and give you meal vouchers. Then, you can go to the Kingswood Emergency Hospital and get a test. You can expedite it, and they will get it back to you within an hour or so. It will cost you $500 a piece. Then, you can get the same flight tomorrow, and that test will be good for Germany and Egypt.”

At this point, there was no turning back. We were going to go to Egypt. So, if two $500 tests was what we needed to get there, then that’s what we were going to do. One more benefit. He moved us to first class for our trouble. My father looked it up on Priceline the next day. A first class ticket to Germany would have cost about $9,000 that day. So, in terms of assets, we were way ahead, even if we had less money in our bank account.

We went to Kingswood, and we had a wonderful experience. This was a really great hospital. If you are in Houston and need an emergency hospital, I highly recommend it. They also have great coffee, and it’s free!

We went back for our tests. In less than an hour, they gave us a folder with our results. I opened them. There was a paper copy, and at the bottom there was a stamp! And it was signed! This is what I had been wanting for months! And now, I had it! Exactly what the Egyptian government wanted.

Colombia and Spain
A surprising number of my plane trips went well after that. No problem going to Cancun or getting home. No problem going to Spain.

It’s not always the plane itself. Sometimes, it’s what you need to get on the plane. My daughter ended up moving to Bogota, Colombia to study. So, we bought her a plane ticket to get there. We did not buy a return ticket. Why? Because she did not know when her semester would end or if she would want to stay after the semester. Well, that turned out to be a problem. You can only stay six months in Colombia without getting permission. So, getting a one way ticket made it look like my daughter was trying to illegally immigrate to Colombia from the United States. So, they would not let us get on the plane. With the clock ticking, I looked online for a return ticket. Fortunately, she was able to purchase one but for a lot more than her ticket for going there. It was also changeable. All she needed was proof that she had a return ticket. So, we were able to board the plane.

When I went to Spain the second time, I had a long wait in Knoxville and a long layover in Atlanta. I was going on a mission trip, but I was going a week early to hang out in Madrid. The plane was delayed quite a bit, but I thought, “I have a lot of time, so I can just relax here and do my work.” I felt bad for the many people who were struggling. I experienced a delay of several hours in Atlanta, too, but it did not bother me. I had no schedule for my week in Madrid. It was all just fine, but people all around me were in a panic.

When the mission team left to go to Spain a week later and meet me in Madrid, it didn’t work out quite as well. They got on the plane, but the plane kept getting delayed. Eventually, the flight got cancelled all together because of maintenance issues. They had no backup planes available. They had to wait until the next day. Delta then gave everybody Uber trips to a Motel 6 in a sketchy neighborhood. They waited five hours with a large number of their fellow passengers into the wee hours of the morning to get their rooms. There was only one employee. The bathroom was closed. They waited on the floor. Finally, around 5:00 a.m., they got to their rooms. They got some good sleep and got on the flight the next day, which arrived in Madrid without any problems. We missed our day of touring Madrid, though, because of the plane trouble.

Sometimes the plane problem is not the plane but the lack of it. On our second trip to Colombia, we were going to go from Bogota to Ibague to Medellin to Cartagena and then home. I purchased 17 plane tickets for $500 total and was very proud of myself.

On Monday morning, we went to the Ibague airport. There was nobody there in that small airport. I brought the tickets to the counter. “These are from Bogota, not from Ibague.” Bogota is a minimum of four hours away. So, this was a problem. It was also a problem because we had to get to Cartagena to get home. Our flight to Cartagena was from Medellin.

I asked them, “How much is it to fly from Ibague to Cartagena tomorrow?”

I waited with a bit of anxiety to see how much it would cost for six tickets. “It will be about $100 a piece.” To purchase six tickets was more than I paid for the 17 tickets to fly around Colombia. But compared with buying a ticket the day before the flight in the U.S., it really wasn’t that bad. Plus, we would be able to take our return flight in Cartagena. So, I bought the tickets for the next day.

When you travel, you have to prepare for the unexpected. It is just part of the game. I experienced some difficulties, but others experienced worse. One family got to the airport to go to the Dominican Republic. The airline literally had no backup flights, so the entire trip got canceled. Another family, was taking a cruise around the British Isles, and their flight got canceled. They missed the cruise, and I am not sure if they ever even got a refund. Traveling is a bit of a risk. Recognizing that beforehand and accepting that God’s will is better than ours, as my Colombian friends said to me when I found out I had the wrong flight in Ibague, is a way to ensure that you will be mentally prepared for what might happen.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. This may be a bit of a downer, but knowing reality is always our friend in the end. Better to go into it with your eyes open, IMHO. I hope to see you here again. Each Tuesday, I’m exploring the ins and outs of international travel. Subscribe below or click on weswhite.net to read the article.