Winter's snowy arrival (albeit late) and weeks of overcast skies here in Chicago have left me with a bad case of cabin fever. My sister told me to start saving for a trip to Jamaica (our mom's homeland), but that won't be for another year. This birdie feels cooped up and needs to fly now. The question is, where?
As a freelancer on a tight budget, cost is always my first consideration when planning a trip. That narrows my destination to somewhere in the US. I plan to travel to places where I have friends and family who won't mind me sleeping on their couch or spare bed. By saving on hotel costs, I can help out with food and gas during my stay. I call this "freeloader travel" or "freeloading." Downton Abbey types who can clearly afford the Ritz have been freeloading in the country homes of friends for ages, so why not the rest of us?
Freeloader travel is a great way to indulge wanderlust when the wallet is threadbare. Once you've figured out how to manage transportation costs, the big ticket item, the rest is gravy. The success of this type of travel depends on the graciousness of loved ones and their intimate knowledge of joints, dives, trails, and entertainments that seldom appear in the travelogues.
Here are a few I'm considering for 2016.
Palm Springs, California, at Cousin Billy's house*. Tickets from Chicago to Palm Springs' adorable airport (compared to unwieldy O'Hare) can be pricey, so planning is important. One of my all-time favorite destinations, Palm Springs is as different from the Midwest as desert is from corn fields. Best of all, I'm blessed to have a cousin like Billy, one of the all-time great hosts and world travelers himself. He actually invites me to come and visit, if you can imagine that. As long as I can get myself to Palm Springs, he'll take it from there. The itinerary usually includes art fairs, pilgrimages to celebrity homes, good food, hang outs with friends galore, sweltering in the dry, hot desert, and marveling at windmills, as far as the eyes can see. I'm always amazed at how, in the valley, the temperature can be 110° while the surrounding mountains are often snowcapped.
On the road to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, with Aunt Sara. My aunt is another glutton for punishment who has invited me to visit her humble abode. She doesn't exactly live in the Outer Banks, but we could do a day-in/day-out trip or split the cost of a hotel for a night, then go back to her apartment for the rest of my stay. The Outer Banks is a 200-mile long gorgeous stretch of "peninsulas and barrier islands separating the Atlantic Ocean from mainland North Carolina." Having once worked for a major airline, I'm an airplane fanatic, so I'd definitely want to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. The Wright Brothers tested their first flight in the area. And we must visit Whalehead Club, a fully restored 21,000-square-foot Art Nouveau yellow mansion that's open to the public for tours. Even if we did nothing but check out the wildlife, that would be enough. Four hundred species of birds have been spotted along the Outer Banks. Compared to attitudinal gray squirrels here in Chicago, pretty birds would be a heavenly sight.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, at Son Walter's apartment. Children can sure expand your territory. Walter is a communications major at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and I never in a million years thought he would land at such a quaint, bustling town. He met his wife there, and gave me an adorable granddaughter there. Just five hours away from Chicago by Amtrak or car, La Crosse is perfect for this outdoorsy young family and an easy destination for me since I know the way there. The quintessential college town, La Crosse boasts the world's largest six-pack of beer, which are really just pictures of beer cans painted onto huge storage silos. Whenever I visit, Walter takes me to scenic Grandad's Bluff, which overlooks the town. But the one place I can never get enough of is the one-and-only Mississippi River. My daughter-in-law once drove me to her parents' home a couple of hours away. We took the scenic route, majestic mountains on the left, the great river on the right. Visiting Pearl Street Books is always a joy. I don't see many bookstores anymore, and that's a shame. Books are still so important to La Crosse residents that they give them away as part of the Little Free Library movement.
New Orleans, Louisiana, with Sisterfriend Beth. Beth doesn't actually live in New Orleans, but somehow, some way, whenever she goes there she stays for free, so I'm following her lead. The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium on Canal Street is on Beth's list. Yes, bugs are creepy, but she swears the museum is a lot of fun. But for me, New Orleans is all about the food. Starting with breakfast, we'll have shrimp grits with tons of butter and cheese. "Nothing healthy going on with this meal," says Beth. "It's meant to be comforting and fattening." For dessert (don't judge), I'll have a couple of deep-fried beignets with powdered sugar on top, and I'll drink it down with chicory coffee or café au lait. If we're still upright, we'll walk down Bourbon Street to be serenaded by great singers and musicians.
- Respect the routine of the home. Don't criticize how the kids are being raised.
- Clean up after yourself. Where ever you're sleeping, maintain a zone of tidiness. Put dirty clothes in a laundry bag or plastic garbage bag, and keep it out of sight.
- Offer to babysit one night during your stay.
- Wash dishes. Clean tub after bath/shower.
- Cook a meal or two.
- Don't overstay your welcome, and don't freeload too often.
- Leave a gift (a bottle of wine or bathroom soaps would be nice).
- When you get back home, make sure to send a text or email to thank your hosts for their hospitality, and attach photos of your time together.
- Reciprocate. When friends and relatives come to my town to visit, mi casa es su casa.
*Names were changed to protect my long-suffering friends and relatives.