Are You a Travel Expert?

Putting my travel expertise to the test

Written by Julie K | Photography by Julie K

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Are you a travel expert?


Part I – In the travel groove

I started traveling on my own in my mid-twenties after I finished my formal education. The dream of travel was a huge motivation pushing me through school. The first few trips, I was definitely a rookie, not a travel expert.


Generally, I’m good at having a well-organized plan, packing efficiently, and adapting to the surprises along the way. However, certain itineraries test your skills and elevate you to the level of an experienced “travel expert.”

Skip to 10 tips for traveling like an expert.

Travel Month

One such time was in November of 2018.


My friend A and I schedule our annual trip to Europe in the fall. Finding a few days where our work schedules and professional commitments align for a travel break has always been a challenge. That year, we selected a few days in the first week of November.


I had also scheduled a two-week trip around the November Thanksgiving holiday to the Florida Keys and Havana, Cuba with another friend. Then, I decided to tack on a quick trip to Paraguay to pick up my residency card because flights were cheaper and more efficient out of Miami. This definitely added some logistical challenges and, along with a full month of travel, would test my level of “travel expert.”


It also left me with less than two weeks between trips to handle all the fires on the home front and work a crammed-full clinic schedule while coping with the usual jet lag of international travel. Part of being a travel expert is how you manage back-to-back trips.


Off to Denmark and Sweden

The trip to Europe was easy. I packed simple layers, as most days were spent sightseeing on foot bundled in a coat, hat, and gloves to ward off the chilly late-fall breeze.


We landed in Copenhagen and stayed in close proximity to the train station and city center, which maximizes efficiency and mobility.


A few days later, we took the train to Sweden, meeting a local friend in Gothenburg. From there, we enjoyed a special local experience which included visiting the farm where his family has lived for generations and staying in his traditional Swedish summer house.


After spending a cold, sunny day seeing a few of the city highlights—including his first city apartment and the palace where he did his military service as a guard—we headed home from Stockholm.

Back home, I did laundry and house chores, paid bills, worked long days, and repacked for a completely different trip and climate. By the time I left on the next trip 11 days later, I was admittedly exhausted.


Miami, Florida Keys, and Havana

Departing rural eastern Washington state in late November means a coat is a necessity. I took a mid-thigh length, medium-fill down coat knowing I would have to carry it with me the whole trip, even though I only needed it on departure and return. My coat along with my clothes and shoes fit snugly into my Osprey carry-on roller bag and was accompanied by my Lowe camera pack.


Part of being a travel expert is being able to manage holiday car rental challenges and Miami area traffic when tired after a long work week and long flight. This often must be navigated before the relaxation begins—here, in the form of an enjoyable few days exploring the Florida Keys.


We had gone through the process of acquiring our travel visas to Cuba ahead of time but it was a bit nerve-wracking at the airport check-in and going through Cuban entry customs all while wondering if the paperwork will be satisfactory.


In fact, I did get held at the gate boarding the flight back to Florida from Havana.  I had no idea the reason as one of the gate agents hustled off with my boarding pass and passport. I hollered after my friend to save me a seat on the plane. Much to my relief, the agent returned with my documents, and I was allowed to board as one of the very last passengers. Whew!


It is imperative to exchange to the local currency on arrival but the ATM in the airport was not functioning. Luckily, we met an American couple departing, who was happy to exchange their remaining currency with us, allowing us to be able to pay for a cab into Old Havana. Sometimes the test of being a travel expert requires being resourceful and having a little luck.


We took it easy for our few days in Havana and enjoyed walking through the streets and sights of Old Havana. This included passing by the closed United States embassy, causing us to reflect on what we would do in the case of a lost passport. Thankfully, this dilemma did not happen.


It is ironic to celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday and then fly to communist Cuba the following day. The contrast was stark: There was very little commerce or stores, accessing the internet was difficult and expensive, and most locals were hesitant to answer any questions about their daily life.  It was a poignant reminder of the freedom and luxury I enjoy every day. Black Friday was definitely not a thing in Cuba!

And on to Paraguay

The Alaska flight from Washington as well as the Southwest flight to Havana arrive and depart from Ft. Lauderdale airport. However, the Copa flight to Panama City connecting to Asuncion, Paraguay depart from Miami airport.


This was no problem on the way to Paraguay as I spent the night in Ft. Lauderdale and enjoyed a relaxing evening on the beach before the next leg of the trip.


The descent into Asuncion was through a massive thunderstorm. My travel companion on this leg of the trip is a trained military pilot and informed me that this was one of the largest thunderstorms he had ever seen. Through the window, I watched lightning streak the sky, trying to trust that large airplanes are designed to handle such forces. I felt the pilots flighting to keep the plane stable and level as we came in on final approach to the airport.


As we touched onto the runway at about 2 a.m., it was a heavy downpour in Asuncion and the runway and sidewalks looked like rivers in the darkness. I dug into my carry-on and switched my leather booties for my flip-flops to avoid ruining my shoes.


As our driver from the hotel took us from the airport into the city, the power and lights were going off block-by-block due to the storm. It is hot and humid in Asuncion this time of year, and we desperately hoped that our hotel would have power (or backup generator) for air conditioning. We were relieved to find the hotel to be one of the small islands of light with the air conditioning running.


Paraguay was a quick trip with just 3 days on the ground which was the recommended minimum from my Paraguayan attorney to finish residency paperwork. I was nervous that there would be a glitch that could force a complicated last-minute change in my travel plans. Thankfully, the attorney was all over the details and everything was completed on the first day, leaving us time to enjoy a little more sightseeing.

The real travel expert test

The return trip was the logistical test.  Connecting back through Panama City and into Miami, I had just 3.5 hours (if the flight landed on time) to make it through customs and get an Uber over to Ft. Lauderdale for the evening flight back to Seattle.


The flight from Asuncion departed to a beautiful sunrise. Off to a good start. As we came into Panama City on final approach over the water, the plane encountered wind shear. Just as the end of the runway was visible, the pilots hit max acceleration and pulled the plane back up into the sky. I watched the minutes anxiously go by as we circled around and entered back into the flight pattern to land. Thankfully, this landing was smooth, and I was able to just barely make the connection to Miami.


Once in Miami, I hustled through customs with my Global Entry card and was able to secure an Uber to Ft. Lauderdale. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday and traffic was moving, and I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale with time to spare. Timing and day of the week can matter a lot. I was relieved that I made the transfer and glad for an extra hour to stretch my legs before yet another five-hour flight.


My energy was high with the excitement of pulling off this complicated itinerary. I felt like a travel pro. I had succeeded in traveling in a carry-on to multiple and quite unique destinations with tricky travel logistics. Maybe I had finally achieved travel expert status.



Julie K. walking with camera towards hangar door at sunset

Part II – Post-pandemic travel rust

Was I still a travel expert?


Through 2019 and early 2020, I traveled frequently, combining work and fun. My friend A and I again traveled to Europe; this time we could only coordinate four days in Ireland but we managed to see Dublin and drive the popular Ring of Kerry route, navigating the right-hand drive.

I also made a 24-hour work trip from Washington to Orlando, flying back to Colorado and immediately going skiing at Steamboat Springs the next morning. That amount of travel combined with skiing at a high elevation was definitely a challenge to my body and brain.


Then March 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic slammed the door shut on all the travel. I remember sitting at home canceling all my flights and feeling angry. How dare this virus ruin my fun!


But we adapted as the pandemic continued. Everyone learned to be more local and get outside more. Many of us navigated air travel with masks, social distancing, and ever-changing rules. I made a quick flight over to Seattle in June of 2020 and there were just a handful of people on the flight. We each had rows of seats to ourselves. An eerie sort of luxury.


I even bought a new-to-me car during the shutdown. I’ve called it my corona crisis.

Julie K and Giulia along river


Dusting off the travel bags

After nearly a year and a half of not traveling due to Covid restrictions and my own personal health challenges, my travel skills felt very rusty.


In October 2021, I tried to pack for my first professional conference since Covid. Where packing used to follow a tried and tested routine, I was a disorganized mess trying to find my favorite travel items and determine what clothes were best to pack.


This was an easy trip to Albuquerque, with one simple flight connection and staying in the same hotel for an entire week. I definitely did not pack as efficiently and compact as previously and ended up taking the “big” suitcase. Oh well!


I connected through Salt Lake City where the airport is being completely renovated and redone. I hadn’t been there in several years. With a tight connection, I had to run through completely unfamiliar terminals, wheezing with my poor stamina from recent illness. I made my flight with about two minutes to spare.

Travel expert again?

This winter with my energy improved, I decided it was time to sharpen up my travel skills a bit and put them to the test. I again planned a work and ski combo trip with three destinations over 10 days.


Traveling with ski gear and heavy winter outerwear always requires some careful packing and makes maneuverability more complicated. On this trip, I would be packing for both cold winter storm temperatures, sunny spring weather, and a professional conference where I would be making a short presentation.


On the day of departure, I again flew to Salt Lake City, where I was picked up by friends, and we proceeded directly to the ski hill. This required having the necessary stormy weather ski clothes relatively accessible in an overpacked SUV.


The air temperatures were so cold the following day (-3F) that I ended up borrowing a heavy down jacket and heated ski socks from my friends because, in my attempt to pack efficiently, I didn’t bring enough warm layers.


After three days of skiing Alta/Snowbird, we all drove back to Colorado together stuffed into their Toyota Sequoia. I spent a quick overnight with my friend A and took the opportunity to do a little laundry before I checked into a small Airbnb in Snowmass Village.

While I am an introvert, I actually prefer to travel with others. However, after a few days of shared lodging, I am usually ready for a small space of my own. Thus, I secured an Airbnb room in Snowmass to have a little quiet time and a place for some focused creative work after skiing with friends each day. This plan worked well. I was in a private house away from the hotels and condos but still in the village where it was close by to get picked up for dinner and outings.


On day five of lovely sunny spring skiing, I moved all my gear out of the Airbnb into my friends’ car. After skiing, lunch, and a quick shower, I packed all the ski gear into its respective bags and compartments and headed to the Aspen airport.

This would be an evening commuter flight to Denver and connecting to San Diego for my conference in Carlsbad, CA.


One of my logistical challenges was going to California with ski gear. I considered shipping my gear home from Snowmass, but this seemed expensive and time-consuming. I worried not only about the availability of an Uber from the San Diego airport up north to Carlsbad late at night, but finding one that would accommodate my ski gear.


One of the executives of the conference happened to call a few nights earlier and inquired about my transportation arrangements. I admitted that I was unsure and, consequently, procrastinating.


She informed me that Ubers to Carlsbad were unreliable and that she had found a private driver who was excellent. She put me in contact and the driver, Peter, called me right away. He was sharp on all the details, and assured me that he could accommodate my ski gear. I was so relieved.


Rocky Mountains to Pacific Ocean

The sunset on my United flight out of Aspen to Denver was a lovely purple and magenta view over the Rocky Mountains. With a tight connection of one hour, I watched as our plane taxied past B22 all the way down to B88 and I knew I was in for an airport hike. I set a brisk pace through the terminal back to B22, darting around the ubiquitous passengers who suddenly stop in the middle of the concourse to look at their mobile phone.


I landed in San Diego and collected my ski gear, trying to inconspicuously drag it all to the curbside past all the travelers wearing shorts and flipflops. Peter, the driver, was indeed reliable and professional—and a hilarious conversationalist.


As I unloaded my ski gear into the beautiful Carlsbad Westin lobby, one of my colleagues passed by and chided me about having an insanely large golf bag. Ha! I don’t even play golf.


For the next 40 hours, I focused on visiting with colleagues, attending seminars, and preparing for my presentation. I usually bring conference clothes on the dressier side, but this time I opted for California casual so I could allow a couple  articles of clothing from the mountains to do double duty.


I did sneak away for a few hours to walk on the beach along the Pacific Ocean. It’s remarkable to be skiing in Snowmass one day and walking on the ocean beach the next. The magic of air travel.

Julie K at the beach in Carlsbad, CA

Heading home

Two days later, Peter drove a few of my colleagues and me back to the San Diego airport, and I dragged my gear to my beloved Alaska Airlines check-in where, for the first time on the trip, my skis flew for free and a first-class upgrade was waiting for me.


I luxuriated in the comfy seat, warm dinner, and lovely drinks on the way to Seattle, where I would again have to bolt from my seat to make the bare minimum tight connection of 40 minutes.


Because I know the Seattle airport so well and it was a Saturday night, I had calculated it was worth the risk to book the 40-minute connection, rather than opt to be safe and spend the night. Thankfully, the winter weather also cooperated, as in clear skies.


Knowing my regional flight home would depart from the C gates, I hoped the incoming flight would also gate in C. Nope, we gated in the N terminal. I ran through the terminal, down the stairs to the train, rode the train to the C terminal,  stood impatiently up the long escalators, and ran down to the middle of the C terminal to the gate.


I made the small flight back to my hometown. The icing on the cake was that all my gear and luggage also made it home that night, which I was not counting on.


Test the expert skills

I was feeling pretty good with myself for pulling off this trip. I packed efficiently enough to be able to manage all my awkward luggage by myself. I was also able to do this while combining a work trip with a ski trip. I honored both my desire to spend time with friends and my need for some quiet creative time.


The funny thing about being an introvert flying alone is that I never asked anyone to take a picture of me schlepping all my ski gear solo. Next year!


You may think, “She just got lucky.” And to a certain extent, you are correct. But I think luck tends to favor the prepared. I made carefully considered and calculated risks, and I was willing to be flexible, accepting the consequences if it didn’t work out perfectly as planned.


It’s good to test our skills, build our confidence, and handle a few unfortunate unlucky moments too. This serves us well in the unknown adventures of travel…and life. It’s what gives the distinction of travel expert.


It feels good to have my travel groove back.

Here are 10 tips for traveling like an expert.




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