An introvert in Rome: The 5 realities I wish I knew before I visited.

Our trip to Italy made me realize what kind of traveler I am. I always described myself as budget conscious, slightly adventurous, and down for any destination. I typically like sightseeing and partaking in experiences that are off the beaten path, but I’m also not opposed to the touristy places that other travelers have added to their “must see” list. Ultimately, I thought I was easily adaptable.

The busy city of Rome provided a realization that I was slightly aware of. I’m not a city person, I extremely dislike crowds, and I don’t like people in my face. Unfortunately, Rome was all of those things. It’s a giant city, filled with millions of tourists, and everyone is in your face trying to sell you something.

Trip Highlight: Walking around St Peter’s Square at night

I had romanticized the idea of Rome while failing to realize that it is one of the most visited cities in the world. I put my best attitude on and tried to make light of the situation, but I couldn’t help thinking that I wish I was prepared for this. And I wish social media hadn’t given me unrealistic expectations of what I would encounter.

So here’s my list of the harsh realities of Rome and what I wish I knew before going.

Reality #1: Mass with the Pope was not a spiritual experience.

I’m Catholic (not the best Catholic), but mass with the Pope was at the top of my bucket list. I’ve watched videos of Pope Francis that have made me cry, so I thought he was going to give out this amazing life changing homily and I’d have this crazy spiritual experience.

So what really happened? I had about 50 selfie sticks blocking my view and all the Pope did was give shoutouts to everyone attending. I found a spot with some shade, sat down and felt my eyes get watery with disappointment. I looked around at everyone taking selfies with the Pope in the distance. They looked like they were having a great time. I sat there wishing I could find the same joy in taking a picture of myself.

 

Reality #2: Group tours are a necessary evil.

I’m not a group tour kind of person. I like doing things at my own pace and as an introvert, I find large groups of strangers frightening. In Rome, every five feet you walk, someone will be in your face trying to sell you a “skip the line” tour. Initially, I found it incredibly annoying. It’s an overpriced tour that allows you to skip the line at several sites, and if you ask these guys how to buy a regular ticket, they won’t give you an honest answer.

I yelled at one guy who was in my face at the Colosseum. He claimed we would wait in line for over an hour, but for over double the price of regular admission, we could skip the line. We took our chances and got through the line in 15 minutes. Several Euros were saved!

An educational experience: Riley reading his 100 Facts about Gladiators book

A different story at the Vatican Museum. The Sistine Chapel was number one on my list of things to see and of course, the line was insane. Not sure why, but everyone in the regular line to buy tickets were not being admitted inside. We waited until it started to look grim… it was my last day to see the chapel and I wasn’t getting in through regular admission.

I finally gave in and paid 40 Euros for a “skip the line” tour when admission should have only been 16 Euros. Clayton waited for me outside because it was too expensive for all of us to go. Our tour was the last group admitted, and that ended up being incredibly dramatic as well! With three tour guides yelling at the guards and only part of our group running inside without our guide (I led the way and got reprimanded), it was quite the shit show, but I got in.

The exit of the Vatican Museum. I actually took this photo without looking! Afraid of heights!

Reality #3: Your bucket list item is on everyone’s bucket list. Prepare to push and shove while taking in the sights.

When I finally got into the Vatican Museum, I was so pumped to see the Sistine Chapel at the end of the tour. I pictured myself sitting in the chapel, taking a seat, looking up and admiring that famous ceiling. Here’s what really happened: we got pushed in like a can of sardines and we weren’t allowed to stop and admire anything. A guard is constantly yelling to keep people moving while simultaneously moving everyone towards the exit. I was literally shoulder to shoulder with other people the entire time while slowly moving forward. In addition to being the biggest fire hazard I’ve ever been a part of, I couldn’t even take a moment to take it all in. I looked up, felt extremely claustrophobic and after 5 minutes, I ditched my tour group.

It was the same story at every other famous sight. All I remember from the Trevi Fountain is hoards of people, and the constant sounds of whistles being blown by police because people would stop to take a picture or try to sit at the edge of the fountain. Seriously, as I type right now, all I hear are whistles in my head.

The only photo I captured without someone walking in front of me

Reality #4: Hospitality is nearly nonexistent and you will encounter people who hate tourists.

Don’t even bother asking a bus driver a question. Ours literally told us he had better things to do! I guess he was right, he had a bus to drive. One girl on our bus was from Turkey and couldn’t figure out how to get back to her hotel. The bus driver refused to help. She got off with us and we tried our best to help her find her way.

We had a few unpleasant interactions with locals. One group thought it was funny to mock us as we asked for directions in Italian. Another woman put both of her hands on my back and literally pushed me a few feet forward because I apparently was in her way.

I learned to start asking local Filipinos for directions because they were so helpful and friendly. One Filipino man walked us all the way to the metro station after we missed the right bus stop to catch a train. Another Filipino woman gave me directions to a restaurant. I learned, when in Rome, ask a Filipino!

Lastly, we learned that hotels will try to take advantage of you. At one place, they tried to charge us 210 Euros instead of the listed 105 because we had our 6 year old with us. I told the guy we would pay extra for our kid even though we were all sharing a bed, but there was no way we were paying double. He wouldn’t budge so we didn’t either. Next time, we won’t waste our time at a hotel.

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At this cafe, I paid for food and a seat, yet I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee at my seat because it would be an additional charge…..

Reality #5: Other people will always be in your photos.

Taking a nice family photo became an impossible task. It got to a point where I gave up and stopped caring that people kept walking in front of our camera. I then remembered that several people on Instagram had told me to go out before sunrise to take photos. We were jet lagged the entire time and I wasn’t going to wake up my exhausted 6 year old for a picture at dawn. So if you want a nice photo, you need to literally be out there before the sun.

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Despite all the people, I still like this picture

In the end, I am so thankful that I got to see Rome. I know that I am incredibly privileged to travel and see these amazing places, and even though I was met with some disappointments in this city, I was able to see this as a learning experience.

So what did I learn? My husband and I are a great team. When we realized asking for help was out of the question, we figured things out on our own. From the buses to the metro to the suburban trains, we had it down pretty well. We even jumped on a couple buses without being 100% sure of the destinations and quickly became very familiar with the streets.

I also learned, you don’t have to be completely in love with every place you visit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have our preferences, and an awesome time for me might be completely boring to another person. We’re all different and because of our differences, I now know to choose our future destinations and activities based on our personalities, and not by the suggestion or pictures I see on social media.

We had a great time over all. We made amazing memories and have some funny stories to tell! But I think it will be a while before we go back to Rome… or possibly any city.

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We loved the food and all the desserts!
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Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) covers 415 square miles in northern Colorado. The park has 2 main entrances, one in Estes Park and another in Grand Lake. We took our first trip to this famous park in mid September and our timing was amazing. The weather was warm with a tinge of coolness and the Aspen trees were in full yellow bloom. The scenery was spectacular and if we ever make another visit, we’d prefer to return in the fall.

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Some basic info if you plan a visit:

We entered the park through the Estes Park entrance. From Colorado Springs, drive time is about 2-2 1/2 hours.

There are 5 campgrounds in the park and one campground is for tents only. Make reservations ahead of time!! It fills up fast.

It’s a National Park, therefore dogs are not allowed anywhere. Although I saw many people breaking that rule, we kept our dog in the car when we went outside to take pictures. We were unaware of this rule and decided not to hike within the park because we didn’t want to leave Jack unattended.

Entrance fees are the following:

  • Automobile – $20 and valid for seven consecutive days, including the date of purchase
  • Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds – $10 per person, not to exceed $20 per vehicle. Valid for seven days including the date of purchase.

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We left Colorado Springs around 6:00 PM on a Friday night. Since we planned our trip last minute, per the reservation site, there was no availability in any of the campgrounds in the park. We decided to take our chances and try the Olive Ridge campground which is about 30 minutes outside of Estes Park and in the Roosevelt National Forest. Olive Ridge is located on Highway 7 along mile marker 14. Reservations are not required, so our tip is to get there early before the weekend campers get in. A camp host is available to pay the $16 fee and several vault toilets are spread out around the campground. It is bear country, so be aware of what you bring and how you are storing your food.

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When we arrived around 9 PM, we drove the loop around the campsite and found that there was no availability. This came as no surprise since it was a Friday night and campsites in Colorado tend to fill up quickly. As we exited, we did not find any signs that indicated parking along the road was prohibited. We didn’t have a tent to set up, so we parked in front of the information sign and quickly jumped inside of Bear. Falling asleep was an easy task and before we knew it, sunlight was beaming through the windows waking us up for the day.

We woke up around 7 AM and opened up the back of the trailer to make breakfast. While we grubbed on freshly made breakfast burritos and hot coffee, a camper on her way out stopped by to let us know that she was leaving for the day and that we should snag her campsite. I grabbed Riley and we quickly ran over to the vacant campsite while Clayton headed over to the camp host to pay for the spot. As soon as we arrived at the site, a car pulled up and asked if we were taking the spot. I apologized to the woman, but I was also thankful we got there a minute before her! Sprinting to the campsite sure paid off!

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Where we parked for the night.
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Breakfast burritos with “meat” and eggs in a spicy tortilla.

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Once we got settled, we met our campsite neighbor who told us there was a back entrance to RMNP that has access to several trails. We decided to head that way and found there was no entrance fee. We found a full parking lot of hikers and tourist, and a couple rangers that welcomed us into the park. When we talked to the rangers, they informed us that dogs are not allowed in the park and that we had to leave Jack in the car. That sure put a damper on our plans.

We decided we didn’t want to leave Jack, so we drove back out to the highway and found a trail just outside of RMNP. The Tahosa Valley Trail followed right along the National Park boundary and unfortunately, the National Park had the better trails and views. As beautiful as the scenery was, the trail followed right along Highway 7 which didn’t make for ideal hiking conditions. The last thing I want to hear while hiking is cars passing by.  As we hiked for about an hour, the trail eventually turned away from the road and began to incline towards the mountains. By this time, I had lost my motivation to continue on and the idea of a nap sounded better. We headed back to Olive Ridge where I immediately headed over to the hammock and fell asleep. By the time I woke up, it was time for dinner and smores by the fire. The day didn’t turn out as we had planned, but it was still a very good day.

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Since we were forced to change our hiking plans because of Jack, we decided the following day would be dedicated to sightseeing through RMNP. We woke up around 9, ran around the campsite and rode our bikes. We left the campground around 11 AM and drove to the Estes Park main entrance into RMNP.

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Some points of interest to look out for when heading towards Estes Park is Chapel on the Rock and The Stanley Hotel. Chapel on the Rock is located in Allenspark right along Highway 7. In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited and blessed the chapel. There were pictures of the Pope located inside and we found that pretty exciting. As we drove through Estes towards RMNP, we passed the famous Stanley Hotel which is known for it’s paranormal activity and inspiring Stephen King to write “The Shining”. Although everyone told us we had to visit The Stanley and do a ghost tour, there were just too many people! I asked Clayton to pull over so that I could take a quick photo of the hotel. A tour of The Stanley would have to wait for another day, preferably on a weekday!

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The Stanley

We spent the next few hours driving through the park on Trail Ridge Road (one of America’s most scenic drives) and stopping at the various pull outs to look at the view and take photos. The park was extremely packed because it was the weekend. We often found ourselves behind a long line of cars and having difficulty finding parking at the pullouts and at the gift shops. As we started to make our descent through the end of the park, we also started getting really hungry. Luckily, we found a large picnic area that was completely empty. Since we had the whole parking lot to ourselves, we parked and set up our chairs. It was so quiet, peaceful, and scenic. Just the perfect place to have lunch.  After about an hour, we packed up and continued our way out of the park. Lucky for us, just as we approached the exit, we saw elk grazing in the field. When we exited, we found ourselves in Grand Lake. We were in complete awe by the lake and the Aspens. How lucky were we to experience the “gold rush”. Fall in Colorado is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had!

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Grand Lake

Overall, a scenic and relaxing weekend. Although our plans for strenuous hikes and exploration through the forest didn’t go as planned, I actually enjoyed the change of pace. I was grateful for the beautiful views, and the opportunity for quality time and relaxation with the boys. My advice if you plan on visiting RMNP: make camping reservations, visit in the fall, and leave the dogs at home.

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Hawaii on a budget

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Here’s a story for the budget conscious traveler. I wanted to share this because I am also very budget conscious… or as some call it, cheap!

To most people, traveling is a very big expense. Sometimes when I daydream about traveling to a faraway place, I’ll goggle it and come across sites with information from travelers who have gone to that location. In the beginning of 2013, I was itching to go to Hawaii, but after some research it felt like an unreachable dream. According to folks on the internet, a Hawaiian vacation for 3 would cost several thousand dollars, and that was money that we definitely did not have.

In February of 2013, I was stressed out and cold. I know most people think it never gets cold in Arizona, but it does. And the cold is bitter and dry. For 5 years, every winter my knuckles would bleed from the dry air. On this day in February, I was driving home from a stressful visit with a client. The dried blood on my cracked knuckles held onto the steering wheel when it suddenly started to snow… in central Phoenix. As cool and exciting as the sight was, I was once again reminded that I was cold and miserable. I was in serious need of a warm getaway before I became a full blown negative Nancy. I decided that we were going to Hawaii and I was going to figure out a way to do it.

Through yet another google search, I found airfare to Honolulu for $600 to $800 RT per person. There was no way in hell I was going to pay that, so I headed to my trusted and favorite site: Hotwire. For past vacations, I had used Hotwire to book 5 star hotels at a cheap rate. I always trusted booking a hotel based on location and ratings, without knowing the name. I’ve never been disappointed using that process and the awareness of how much money I save is always very fulfilling for me. I perused through Hotwire when a notification popped up. If I chose to book a flight without having the information on what time the flight was leaving or what airlines I was taking, I could book a RT flight to Honolulu for $275 per person. The only information provided was the departure and return date. I confirmed the dates with Clayton which happened to coincide with his spring break. I couldn’t pass up the deal so without talking to my manager ahead of time (the flight was 10 days out), I booked the flights. After booking, I got the flight details. We were on Delta and had a connecting flight in LAX. Our layover was approximately 1 hour and the day of the flight, we had no problems!

3 roundtrip tickers from Phoenix to Honolulu including taxes= $825

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Next up was our accommodations. To stretch our dollar even further, I looked into renting out condos for our stay through several sites. Unfortunately, since we were booking so last minute, there was no availability anywhere. I also looked into campgrounds and once again, no availability. We had no choice but to settle for booking a hotel. I used Hotwire to book one 3 star hotel the night we arrived. It had terrible reviews, but it was the cheapest available at just under $100. For the next 5 days, I booked a 2 star hotel close to the beach which ended up being amazing compared to the 3 star from the previous night. The 2 star came out to $120/night.

6 nights in a hotel by Waikiki Beach= $700

When we found out that our hotel stay would be almost as expensive as airfare for 3 people, we realized our budget would be tight. We ate out a total of 6 times. Once at a food truck, twice at the International Market, once at a cafeteria style place right outside the beach and twice at a restaurant for dinner. 4 out of the 6 times, Clayton and I shared a plate. For the other meals, we went to the grocery store and got essentials. Having a kitchen in our hotel room helped with storing and cooking food. Our breakfast typically consisted of cereal and before we’d leave the hotel for an outing, I’d stuff my bag with snacks.

Here is the breakdown of what we spent during our trip:

Car rental for 2 days= $40

Parking for 2 nights= $20/night

Dole Pineapple Plantation= $40 spent

Pearl Harbor= $40 spent

Food and Gas= About $350

Total: Just under $2000

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Of course, there are downsides to watching your money very closely during a vacation. The main objective of a vacation is to let loose and not worry about those type of things, but we really didn’t have an option. Before we left for Hawaii everybody told us “you have to go to a luau!!” Well turns out luau’s cost around $100 per person and I couldn’t justify spending that much money on food and entertainment for a night. Another downside was the lack of alcohol. Drinks are expensive and once again, it was not worth it. Also, we had to be careful about what we spent at touristy spots. For example, at Pearl Harbor, we skipped several things because there was a separate admission fee. Overall, we spent most of our time at the beach and honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way!

Moral of the story: I love Hotwire and a Hawaiian vacation doesn’t have to cost several thousand dollars. If you’re willing make small sacrifices, you can save a couple dollars!

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