juliamhammond

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The FlagMate has landed!

It’s here! The FlagMate arrived today, with my three starter flags attached. Regular readers of this blog may remember my earlier post, in which I described how I became involved in this Storyteller project:

https://juliahammond.blog/2018/03/26/will-you-be-adding-flagmate-to-your-backpack/

Founder Bhav Patel set up Storyteller for three reasons: to create high quality travel accessories, to inspire travellers and most important of all, to do some good by supporting projects aimed at helping to fund education programmes for underprivileged kids around the world. I received this free sample in exchange for an honest review, so now it’s here, what do I think and should you order one for yourself?

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First impressions are very favourable. The product is high quality, from the enamelled flags to the neatness of the stitching on the fob itself. Though it’s faux leather, the material is smooth to the touch and it has a pleasing sheen. As you can see from the photo above, it arrived in a tidy little box and would make a great gift or, if you’ll permit me to use the C-word in July, an ideal Christmas stocking filler. I opted for the fob style, which retails at £10.99, but there’s also one with a clip if that’s your preference for an extra pound. The keyring holds up to 29 flags, each available to purchase for £4.99. It’s not cheap, but I still think it’s suffiicently well made to be worth the price, especially if you view it as a charitable donation as well.

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Each takes a bunting of flags – what a wonderful collective noun that is! I decided to narrow it down to just three as fitting 114 flags onto one keyring (one for each country I’ve visited) wasn’t going to work. I thought long and hard about which three flags I wanted to include and opted for a trio that had special significance for me. Now I’m sure you’ll be able to recognise the country from its flag, but in case you can’t, there’s an option to engrave their name – or any other special message, date or initials for that matter – onto the back. I opted for Austria, Peru and Iceland.

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The stories

Austria

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My walking companion, Einstein

My love affair with Austria has a lot to do with deep rooted memories of happy family holidays in the Tyrol and Salzkammergut. My first holiday was to St Anton in May 1970. I was nine months old and remember absolutely nothing of the trip as a result. Mum recalls I helped calm down a nervous flyer on the plane – 21st century babies, take heed – and earned the nickname Little Mausli from the hotel staff on account of a white romper suit. I’ve been back to Austria many times since as an adult and even took the dog.

Peru

Peru Time to feed the llamas in Cusco

Llama dinner time, Cusco

My first “proper” travel experience was to Peru in 1995 when I spent the entire school summer holidays in the company of a dear friend and his delightful family. I was enchanted with the place and have returned four times since. Its archaeological and historic attractions are of course a huge draw, but it’s the Peruvian zest for life and utterly bonkers attitude which keeps me returning.

Iceland

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The church in which I was married

I’d like to think I first went to Iceland before it was fashionable. By the time I returned to get married, word was out and Iceland was no longer the under the radar, scarily expensive destination it had once been. Nevertheless, it was April, early in the season, and summer’s crowds had yet to arrive. We shared our wedding photos with Skógafoss and a mere handful of hikers in brightly coloured waterproofs, sufficiently few in number to Photoshop out.

Would I buy FlagMate?

I’m looking forward to hitting the road this autumn and hopefully using my flags as a talking point to get to know fellow travellers. At £4.99 a go, buying additional flags isn’t going to break the bank, so perhaps I’ll add to my keyring story and help underprivileged kids as I do. It’s a great idea on so many levels, not least because I don’t ever need to sew any more badges on my day pack…

What do you think? If you’d like to create your own travel story and help support Storyteller’s work, you can buy your own FlagMate here:

https://www.storytellertravel.co.uk/storyteller-shop/


The value of trip planning

I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different.  The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas.  I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/off-to-texas-with-traveleyes/

It’s outside my comfort zone.  Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel.  I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary.  Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.

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The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus.  I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week.  This is firmly within my comfort zone.  This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.

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The former is a departure from my usual travelling style.  Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport.  There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy.  I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip.  The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research.  I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas.  Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.

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In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging.  I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read.  I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka.  I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms.  I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal.  I really must look that up.  A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too.  I’m happy.  Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.

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It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas.  Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place.  It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen.  And that’s a shame.


Trialling the Seasons Visa debit card in Orlando, Florida

Recently I was asked whether I’d like to try out the Seasons Visa debit card. Regular readers of my blog will know I carried out a similar trial using the Caxton FX prepaid card in New York last year. With that card, I’d had about a 50% success rate and thus wasn’t completely sure I’d use it again, but the Seasons team were confident in their product. An easy to use app makes checking your balance and reloading the card a simple and quick process. I decided to take them up on their offer. This was the deal: they’d load some money onto the card, and I’d go and spend it in return for writing about my experience. So here I am in Orlando, and here’s how I got on.

Harry P Leu gardens and museum
Transaction: admission for one adult $10
Status: not possible to use the card on the day I visited as the card machine was out of order, but the cashier said that it would normally have been accepted
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This downtown treasure is a world away from the hubbub of International Drive and the crowds that throng Orlando’s many theme parks. The extensive grounds to what was once Harry Leu’s home are filled with all kinds of plants and flowers brought back over the course of his travels. Huge bamboos and towering palms contrast with delicate roses and the pretty flowers of the butterfly garden. Without a doubt, this was the highlight of my stay.

Lunch at Shake Shack
Transaction: a SmokeStack burger, cost $7.12
Status: card swiped, payment accepted
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Shake Shack started off as a lunch cart selling hot dogs in New York’s Madison Square Park over a decade ago. Since that humble beginning, its fame has spread and this popular chain can now be found across the States and beyond. Their shakes, as you’d expect from the name, are legendary, so make sure you order one to accompany your meal.

Orlando Science Center
Transaction: one adult ticket, cost $27
Status: card swiped, payment accepted
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If you’re travelling with kids and feel that they (or you) need a break from white knuckle rides and Mickey Mouse, then this may be the perfect antidote to theme park fatigue. This place makes science fun; I found out just how hard it is to present the weather, experienced a hurricane-strength blast of air in a wind tunnel and tried to keep my balance on an earthquake simulator. With IMAX movies about space exploration, a dino dig and alligators in a ground floor tank, there’s something to entertain all the family. It’s great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Outlet mall shopping at Gap
Transaction: one long-sleeved white T-shirt, cost $8.52
Status: card swiped, pin number required, payment accepted
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Few Brits come to Orlando without making at least one trip to an outlet mall, where there are huge discounts to be had on many of our favourite brands. Gap’s my staple. I’d usually use cash for such a small transaction rather than my credit card, but carrying the Seasons card meant I didn’t need to fiddle around with a purse full of coins. One swipe and I was good to go.

Refreshments at Starbucks
Transaction: a drink and a bun, cost $6.08
Status: card swiped, payment accepted
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All that shopping was thirsty work, so a quick stop in my go-to global coffee chain was in order. Again, using a prepay card for a low value transaction was quick and trouble free. When they realised they didn’t have the bun I’d been charged for, it was just as simple to swipe the card again and put the refunded value straight back.

Margaritas at happy hour
Transaction: two drinks, cost $6
Status: card swiped, payment accepted
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If the sun’s out and there’s an al fresco bar, then happy hour may just be too hard to resist. And with margaritas at $3 a pop, one each before the film seemed like a good idea.

A movie at Cinemark
Transaction: one adult ticket, cost $9.75
Status: card swiped, payment accepted
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With so many cinemas in town, it’s hard not to catch at least one movie. I opted for Black Mass. With Johnny Depp in the starring role, this is the true story of South Boston crim Jimmy Bulger. A strong supporting cast and compelling storyline made this a memorable film.

A trashy read from Walgreens
Transaction: one magazine, cost $5.31
Status: card swiped, payment accepted
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No country does the cult of celebrity like the USA and there are plenty of magazines to fuel people’s obsession. With Prince Harry on the cover, this girl’s copy of US Weekly is coming home with her.

Downtown Disney for a souvenir
Transaction: a Mickey Mouse cookie cutter, cost $6.34
Status: card swiped, payment accepted
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You didn’t think I’d write a blog from Orlando without at least mentioning Disney, did you? No parks this time – been there, done that – but always room in the suitcase for something Mouse. Now I get to make Mickey-themed biscuits when I get home.

The verdict

Aside from the Harry P Leu Gardens where their card machine was down, the Seasons Visa debit card worked every time. I’d be confident travelling with this, loading value onto the card instead of carrying a lot of cash. Best of all, the fact that the balance is stored as pounds means that if I don’t spend it all, I can use it when I get home. This one’s a keeper.

For more information on the Seasons Visa debit card visit http://seasonstravelcard.com/