Colorful doors in Valetta, Malta
Colorful doors in Valetta, Malta

Travel + wellness

Travel is a huge part of my regular self-care routine.  On my first trip abroad, at 25, I hopped on a plane solo and went to the opposite end of the earth to live in a village in Uganda.  On that trip I met an older traveler who told me that one day, I’d be like him… someone who works to travel.

Since that trip, I’ve been in love with the world around me.  I grew up in in a small unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, California.  My family couldn’t afford summer vacations or weekend getaways. We’d sometimes take trips to Big Bear lake for weekends when I was small, and it took 18 years before I took my first airplane flight.  Which was all the way across the country to Florida for work. What can I say? The first time I do things, I go as far as possible. I’ve learned, over time, that travel makes me push past what I think I’m comfortable with to a new place of learning, growing, and awareness of the world around me.

Travel makes me limitless

Wendie looking out the window over Spain.
Malta to Madrid, December 2018

Considering that my well-being is a continual state of self-awareness evolution, it makes sense that one of my favorite past-times would be international travel. When I’m outside of my comfort zone, I find that I have time to relax and observe the world with curiosity and appreciation of details that I would otherwise miss in the rush of my normal daily routine. My itinerary usually includes art museums, cultural and historical points of interest, and guided tours of special places- like a safari, trail running, or snorkeling adventures.

My vacations are so packed with things to do, that I have to remind myself to chill out and relax for a nice meal, glass of wine, or hot chocolate and dessert. (side note: I’m an international hot chocolate and apple pie/apple pie type things connoisseur- I try them everywhere!). Traveling has exposed me to new foods, new cultures, new people and new friends across the world. In these moments of intellectual and cultural exchange, I have found myself better understanding humanity and our existence on this earth.

Traveling has contributed to my Social Wellness by helping me build a community that extends beyond miles, oceans, continents and arbitrary man-made borders. I have also been fortunate to share in the social aspects of adventuring to new places with close female friends who love traveling as much as I do. These social connections have helped me build memories that will last a lifetime and I’m thankful for the time I’ve been able to spend abroad expanding my horizons and working on my wellness.

How to conquer Madrid & Malta in 10 days

Gozo Salt Flats, Malta
Gozo Salt Flats, Malta

The next 6 posts will cover a variety of aspects of my 10-day trip to Madrid and Malta with my friend, Monika.  The ambitious itinerary warrants multiple blog posts to cover the trip basics, each destination, wine and food, and other travel tips.

This inaugural post is an overview of the basics that are required for every trip and some tips about how we negotiated our preferences and planned an epic trip.

Our somewhat complicated itinerary

12/21/18- Depart JFK for Rome, Italy
12/21/18- Arrive Rome, Italy – connect to Madrid, Spain
12/21-24/18- Madrid, Spain
12/25/18- Depart Madrid for Lisbon, Portugal- connect to Luqua, Malta
12/25-12/30- Malta & Gozo
12/30-1/1- Madrid, Spain

Step 1: Get a Mate

The first step in planning a trip is usually to ask yourself, do I go solo, with someone, or with a crew?  This is a critical step to plan carefully as the improper choice can lead to complete holiday failure. I was fortunate to have a travel partner lined up to split costs, keep me company, and take awesome travel photos of me in cool places.

Meet Monika

Travel experts Wendie and Monika have coffee in the Walled City of Valetta, Malta.
Travel experts Wendie and Monika have coffee in the Walled City of Valetta, Malta.

One of the friends I’ve been eager to travel with is my friend, Monika. We met about 2 years ago and quickly became close friends and spent many Friday night dates together, since we’re both usually single women at the same time. We are top notch chatters, making meeting new people is fun. We also enjoy seeing new countries and drinking local new wines. All of those activities have given us countless hours of options for “things to do” on a trip, which makes Monika an ideal traveling companion.

A bit about Monika and why I love her.  I always tell Monika if I had to marry a woman, she’d be my gal.  She’s a level 2 sommelier on weekends/evenings and a middle school teacher by day.  Monika is one of the most caring and fun-loving people who loves to joke around, have fun, and experience new things.  She also happens to throw fabulous dinner parties and wine events for all her girlfriends. Which is of course, just another reason to love her!

Traveling with a new travel partner is always a journey in learning and growing together. While Monika and I are both experienced travelers, we weren’t sure our styles of travel were compatible. We both tried to communicate our preferences up-front during the planning process to make sure we were going to avoid issues down the road, if possible. We checked-in about things like sleeping arrangement preferences, items we could share, and sharing rides.

I’ve invited Monika to contribute to this blog series so both our voices can share the memories we made.  From here forward you’ll notice that the next set of 6 blogs are co-authored and will have different voices sharing information, tips, and stories.  All of Monika’s contributions are in italics so you know who’s sharing.

Wendie and Monika at Dingli Cliffs at sunset
Wendie and Monika a Dingli cliffs at sunset.

Choosing a travel partner can be a tricky thing.  It is not often that we spend 24 hours a day, multiple days in a row with anyone, including your own family members!  So choose a partner that you know will still be your friend even at those moments that you might not be each other’s favorite person.  Wendie and I were compatible travel partners because we work well together. She is assertive when necessary, amazing at directions, and not afraid to take the lead, but always listens to my needs and preferences as well.  Also we work on similar budgets and live a generally similar lifestyle. Wendie is also really good at remembering to take selfies of us together so that we actually have good pics of us together throughout the trip!

-Monika

Step 2: Decide When You + Your Mate Can Get Away

Date restrictions

Monika looking at Fungus Rock, Gozo Malta
Monika looking at Fungus Rock, Gozo Malta

Since Monika’s a teacher, selecting dates for our excursion was limited to the 10 day window over her winter break.  Monika can tell you more about how picking dates for trips is difficult as a teacher. I definitely found the impact on ticket prices to be less than ideal for budget traveling so more power to my teacher friends who love to travel.

This is a huge downside to being a teacher!  Some people may think that a teacher’s schedule is ideal for travel, and it is from June to August.  But not every part of the world is ideal for travel during those months. So in order to remain on budget, you have to be willing to travel to off-season locations.  Sometimes the prices are still hiked up because it is a holiday week, and that is just a pill I have to swallow!

-Monika
Comino Island water
Comino Island, you can stop and swim on the way to Gozo from Malta

Off season travel

Traveling off season can get you amazing deals on flights and hotels, but it can have drawbacks as well.  Since our dates were limited, we knew most of the world would be in the dead of winter. That either meant traveling somewhere that would be cold, rainy, windy, or at least mild to cold in temperature if we chose to go anywhere north of the equator.  That fact led to a lot of research, hours googling locations, and several potential itineraries.

Both Monika and I have traveled to destinations off season and missed the height of tourist season for the sake of the budget or the schedule.  Hotels will often offer discounted rates, upgrades in rooms, or you may find more choices of properties. Flights are also cheaper depending on your destination and the date you are traveling.  However, sometimes if you are going to a warm destination in the winter, some of the top attractions might be closed or have limited hours.

Wendie & Monika on a Viator wine and tapas tour in Madrid, Spain.
Wine and Tapas Tour booked through Viator

When traveling the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the discounts and selection that you might have at other off-season times suddenly dwindles.  Due to this, when building our itinerary, we had to be flexible with our timing, the destination we chose to depart from, and the destination(s) we were choosing to visit in 10 days.

Mistletoe in Madrid
Mistletoe in Madrid

One way to skirt the off-season weather, is to go to the Southern Hemisphere.  Remember summer and winter seasons are swapped, so you can get to some really beautiful countries at a great price.  For instance, I traveled to South Africa in June (winter in S.A) and lucked out with mild yet sunny 70 degree weather.  It was wonderful! The key is research research research!

-Monika

Step 3- Set your Itinerary

After nearly throwing in the flight search towel several times, we decided to switch our searches from looking on individual budget flight websites for deals or by destination and Monika began looking on google flights for the dates with all possible destinations and costs listed.  This allowed us to focus destinations that were within the budget and we could then identify what we would want to do with a 10-day trip to that destination.

10 days is a pretty long trip, so consider knocking out two countries in one trip.  This is perfect to do in Europe because you can travel on budget airlines, like Ryan Air.  Trains are also a wonderful way to bop around Europe, they are efficient and reasonably priced.  Once you have found a flight option that fits within your budget, consider visiting another nearby country or city to make the most of your trip and budget.  

-Monika

Step 4- Choose your accommodations wisely!

One of the biggest compromises we had to make was what kind of accommodations each of us were comfortable with. We are both at the age where staying in a hostel can be fun and a great way to meet people but also might come with some drawbacks and less comfort. Ever since I found Air BnB, I’ve been a fan of staying in a place where you have your own bathroom and kitchen. I haven’t found cost-savings on having a kitchen like some friends have, but it is convenient to have the ability to cook.

Accommodations for me really come down to where I’m visiting, my travel partner or lack thereof, and of course budget.  I have stayed in big group hostels with bare necessities and group bathrooms and I have stayed in luxury 5 star hotels. Be willing to compromise on this for the sake of your partner and your own budget.  Ultimately, unless you are going to an all-inclusive resort, chances are you won’t be spending a lot of time at your hotel. The most important factors for me are cleanliness, safety and location. Location is important because you don’t want to spend hours of your day traveling to the main attractions.  I admit, I get blinded by a good deal and forget to check this criteria! Learn from my mistake. If you are solo travel and can afford it, consider booking a private room at a hostel. This way you have the social aspect if you are looking for some people to hang out with, but you have the comfort of your own room.  It is often comparable in price to a budget hotel with the added bonus of a social atmosphere, guided tours, and free breakfast.

-Monika

Step 5- No time for planning- pack and go!

Sometimes life gets in the way of vacation.  This trip was one of the least prepared trips that either Monika or I have ever taken!  We had places to sleep, flights, and a few activities Monika didn’t want to miss booked in advance.  The rest of the agenda and itinerary included lots of time to see the top attractions, take walking tours, and spend hours on public transportation when we felt too poor for ubers.  

In a weird way not having an agenda for each day made the trip somewhat organic with the opportunity to have late night girls chat days and sleep in mornings. We still packed in a lot each day and had to move around several days of activities on the fly, but overall that was part of the fun.

Monika and Wendie at dinner in St. Julian's, Malta
Monika and Wendie at dinner in St. Julian’s, Malta

Typically I set an itinerary, pre-purchase skip the line tickets to main attractions and have a pretty set idea of what I’m doing each day when I travel.  I HATE feeling like I came all that way and missed out on something! For instance, in Rome I planned to go to the Colosseum on one of the last days of my trip. Failing to realize that it was Good Friday and the Pope would be giving his traditional speech from this location, I arrived there at 2 pm just as they were closing the doors!  Kinda cool that the Pope was coming, but totally sucked that I couldn’t go inside. The day ended up being salvaged when I met a lovely woman on the Spanish steps and we ended up having dinner together after a sunset photo shoot!

Anyway I digress, back to the Madrid and Malta trip.  There was a few weeks that this trip was possibly not going to happen at all.  My dad fell ill with a nasty infection and it unraveled into a series of complications.  Just as he was coming home from the hospital, I was leaving for the trip! In about 48 hours!  Where I normally set that daily itinerary, dream up the perfect outfits for those epic pictures, and read up on history and culture, this trip was different.  Packing? If it was gray it went into the suitcase. Some call it a capsule wardrobe, let’s go with that. Planning a daily itinerary turned into more of a rough list of stuff I wanted to do.  With one exception, the wine and tapas tour. That one I booked way ahead of time, don’t like to mess with my wine tours! Lesson learned, you do not need to have a perfectly planned itinerary to have an amazing trip.  Leave yourself some time to just let the travel happen to you. Allow yourself to sleep in and stroll as well. After all, it is vacation!

-Monika

Step 6- Essentials to check before you go.

As we explained above, we were in a hurry to pack and go.  So there were a few things we didn’t exactly sort out before we left.  We’ll go into more details about our recommendations of what to bring on the trip and what to look up for each destination in future blog posts.  

Monika

What I wanted to focus on as essential are the things you really need to look up weeks in advance of your trip.  Since we were going to 2 European countries, no shots were necessary. But for any trip you should check to see if you need a visa in advance and the price and schedule a visit to the travel clinic if you need shots.  Be sure to plan for these costs in your budget and if you need to send your passport for a visa stamp or extra pages, allot enough weeks to get it back before you travel.

Also remember to plan for all the details of your life to go on without you.  Pay your bills in advance, find a place for your pet, and don’t forget to call your credit card company or go online to put in a travel notice.

You + Travel = Self-Care

Wendie inside Palacio Crystal
Wendie inside Palacio Crystal

For me, travel fulfills many self-care needs.  First of all, there were many years in my 20’s that I spent wishing I’d meet that certain someone and take a romantic trip, because in my clouded, over-romanticized brain that was the only acceptable option.  Instead of traveling with a friend or solo, I wrapped my income into a mortgage and other bills. It took many years of bad dates, underpaid jobs and watching countless friends get married, have kids, and some, then divorced, to realize that maybe I just needed to go for it.  I went back to school, paid off some bills and all I needed was the courage to book that first trip! Enter my new friend Marisa, who turned out to be a whiz at travel. She got me out of my comfort zone and showed me the ropes for budget travel. Shortly after, I met Wendie and in talking about my travel plans, suddenly countless other travel partner volunteers started to pop into my life.  It’s funny how sometimes when you put something out into the universe, it comes back to you like a boomerang. It turns out that the travel thing was not necessarily as difficult, scary or expensive as many think. With a few easy tips and a certain mindset, and and international cell phone data plan, the world can be your oyster.

Now that travel has become part of my daily life, (yes…daily, planning takes time!) it has also become a major part of my mental health care.  6 and half years ago I lost my mom to cancer, and I basically spent the next 4 years battling depression and not realizing it. It took some medication and my first couple of trips to make me realize what true happiness was again.  Now my entire perspective and outlook on life has changed. I wake up in the morning and go to work so I can travel. I work on those side hustles so I can travel. I don’t get so down on myself about still being single and childless because of travel.  In fact, all my mom friends are fairly jealous of my pick up and go lifestyle. And to be honest, after watching a few friends go through difficult divorces, I can’t help but think that perhaps I dodged a bullet. I’m in no way putting marriage down. In fact, I still hope to find that special guy someday.  However, as women are finding their independence in careers and finances, there is nothing wrong in celebrating other types of accomplishments. For me, 6 countries in a year is something I’ll let myself toot my own horn about!

-Monika

What’s Next?

Red door in Valetta Malta
A new adventure is right behind every cool looking door…

As Monika explained, travel is part of your personal accomplishments and it’s a great way to build confidence in yourself, your abilities, and your international savviness.   Traveling builds strengths in so many areas of wellness that I think everyone should try to take a trip abroad at least once in their lifetime.

How can traveling improve your wellness?

  • What are some wellness activities you do while you’re on vacation?
  • When’s your next trip?
  • Who is the travel partner you’re dying to travel with?
  • What kind of trip will help build a facet of your wellness?

All of these questions are important next steps in using travel to support your wellness.   For Monika and I, our next steps are to dive deeper into the details of our trip, sharing stories, resources, information, and must-sees in Madrid and Malta.  Stay tuned for the next 5 blogs covering the details of each destination, travel tips, wine and food pairings in each destination, and our top travel must-haves.

Hope you enjoy the journey as much as we did!

#BeWell

Monika & Wendie

Monika & Wendie Gahr Dalam Cave, Malta
Ghar Dalam, Malta

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