Bringing talent to the table

Hello, everyone! Hope you are enjoying a nice fall! I’m starting a new blog feature today. In this series, I spotlight a woman in business or running an entrepreneurial enterprise, or doing something just plain cool! Today, please welcome my favorite travel agent, Janet McLaren!

Standing shot from Valerie

  1. Tell us a little about your job.

Hi Darlene! Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my travel business – there is so much a person can gain by experiencing the world that I just think everyone should get out there, and I’m thrilled to help them do it! So that’s what I do – take care of the practicalities of the getting there, the bookings, the experiences they want, the must-dos and don’t bothers, and all the little things that make a trip a success.

I’ve been doing it professionally for over 16 years, mostly as a franchisee with Cruise Planners, which I chose because it has the prestige of affiliation with American Express. I’ve traveled myself extensively throughout the Unites States, including Alaska and Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, and Canada. But the most thrilling trip of all, so far, has been a safari in Tanzania and Kenya!

  1. What does a typical day look like?

I start off with a bunch of coffee going through emails and news, then organizing what’s on my calendar and errands and such. Usually by the afternoon I’m in “research mode” on client projects, then it’s call-backs and follow-up, and answering emails again. It’s surprisingly exhausting, so I take several breaks, including one about 3:30 to feed a very hungry and persistent furry cat!

  1. What do you love about it?

Since I work from an office in my house the commute is very short, and I can drink coffee all day if I want, haha! I have great resources to work with, so I can almost always find just what a client wants and it’s very satisfying to put a plan together from beginning to end. Then when they come back from their trip and tell me what an amazing time they had it’s like frosting on the cake.

  1. Tell us about your journey. Did you always want to do this?

Before I bought my Cruise Planners franchise, I was a refugee from the restaurant business! My husband and I owned four fast-food places in small towns in Oklahoma, but he didn’t love it like I did, so after seven years we sold out. Then we moved to Dallas for the educational opportunities for our two sons (one graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas, and the other became a surgical technician after joining the Navy). Steve returned to sales in the food industry, which he had a more natural talent for and enjoyed.

I sold furniture for a while, which I also liked, but when the economic downtown slowed the furniture industry after 9-11, it wasn’t so lucrative to be working all those nights and weekends. Then a friend told me he knew someone managing a travel agency who needed a trainee, so I interviewed for that and got hired! I had planned most of our trips by myself so I knew I could do it for others; but I had also used travel agents for our more elaborate vacations and was aware of the value and expertise they could add.

But before I took the job, I tried out some do-it-yourself travel websites to see if there was still a viable market for travel agents. As I soon found myself befuddled and overwhelmed on the internet, I said to myself, “Oh yes, people will definitely be looking for help with this stuff!” We then went on a cruise, so I could be sure I had the “heart” for it (I book all kinds of travel but cruising is the major focus), and I absolutely loved it.

Us w Selemani (2)

  1. What do you bring to your field that you think is special?

Turns out I have many talents! The main goal is to match the right vacation/supplier/destination to the client’s wishes, and I am first of all very good at figuring that out and researching the best options. Next, I would say having a high tolerance for frustration and problem-solving; not because there are that many “problems,” but because each client is unique in their needs. Mostly it’s things like: cruise cabins tend to allow up to four people, but the family has three kids – how to best arrange accommodation for five. Or a tour they like is 12 days but they can only take 10 days off – how to customize the trip just for them. And then I’d say there is general knowledge of the best times to go places, how far out to book in order to get the best fares, and that sort of thing.

  1. What do you wish people knew about your business?

Great question – I would say, I wish they knew that I am not a “middleman.” There’s no upcharge for my services and payments go directly to the supplier, not to me. I’m paid by the supplier after the travel is completed. People have been sold on the idea that somehow “buying direct” would save them money, which I suppose could be true for home goods and such, but that’s just a marketing gimmick not applicable to travel. Travelers are better off with their own agent who can be their advocate and who can offer an assortment of options besides just the supplier’s – for example if you book a cruise direct, then their call-center clerks can only tell you about the products of their company.

  1. And just for fun: What is your favorite movie?

Haha, you’ll be (not) surprised to hear I love all movies that feature some kind of travel! Movies like A Room with a View, Roman Holiday, and The English Patient get me going every time.

Thanks for joining me today, Janet. I’d love to hear more about your adventures sometime! Hoping Covid-19 is a thing of the past soon and people can start to travel again. I’ve got so many places on my list!

Darlene

Find Janet at www.cruiseplanforyou.com

Have a travel question for Janet? Ask it here!

Presents from Across the Pond!

I didn’t go to London for Wimbledon last week with my husband and my son, but I got some good stuff, anyway.

Remember those souvenir T-shirts that said, “My parents went to wherever and all I got was this T-shirt?” Yeah, my souvenirs are way better than that. I got all three of the items I suggested before they left! 🙂

The English like their tea, right? Me, too! I would’ve fit right in. And I probably wouldn’t have had to carry around my own tea bags or ask if the tea was freshly brewed at all the restaurants like I do in the U.S. of A.

I was happy to learn that in London, the hotels actually cater to tea-drinkers. Instead of a coffee pot for coffee drinkers – and pretty much nothing for those of us who don’t appreciate coffee-flavored tea from water that’s been run through the coffee maker – there was tea service in the rooms!

Too bad I wasn’t there to see that, but it makes me smile, anyway. Can’t wait to try this new-to-me brand. Mango and Earl Grey – mmmmm.

And then there’s the chocolate. They did well. Or, I did well. A chocolate library?! Ha! Two of my favorite things combined. Extra brownie points to the hubs who carried these hefty chocolate bars in his bag through two airport terminals due to flight issues. This little “library” weighs a ton!

Next? A very British silk scarf from a museum there. The lightly printed architectural drawings with bold royal blue and gold border look . . . well, royal!

They had a great time being tourists and taking in the amazing tennis at Wimbledon. While I enjoy watching tennis, I’m not a big fan of lines or “queuing up” as they call it. So I declined. I’m happy they had a fabulous father/son experience. And I appreciate they took the time to think of me while they were at it!

If you’re vacationing this summer, happy travels!

What’s your all-time best souvenir?

Darlene

 

Ready, set, launch! Graduation hails accomplishment and transition

Well, we hit another milestone. Last weekend, we finished up the last of the college graduation festivities. For the first time in a couple of decades, we have no kids in school. We have no college tuition payments to make.

As many of you probably already know, this is big. Huge. In many ways.

As I reflect on what this means, sure, I see home projects and travel we can now do because we might have a little extra cash. It’s also been a fun trip down memory lane. But mostly, I see a transition to a new stage of life. We will never be as involved in our kids’ lives. They’ll have so many new experiences that won’t involve us. Meet so many new people that we may never know. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but right now that feels a little strange.

mortarboards

There’s also a sense of accomplishment. Yay! We managed to keep them alive to “adulthood.” The oldest, who just graduated with her master’s degree, is already pretty self-sufficient. The youngest is now a young man also on his way to being self-sufficient. We’re so proud of both of them. Proud to be launching decent, functional, intelligent contributing people into the world.

I suppose the other emotion is relief. As the mom, of course I’ll still worry about them, but it feels different now. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a full-time job. Maybe I can relax a tiny bit and enjoy watching their progress from a little more distance. I can’t wait to see how the next couple of years unfold – where life takes them. And me.

So far, I have no big plans other than to buckle down and get some writing done, launch a few more books into the world. Maybe a trip or two. I think we’ll take some time to ease into this transition, and let things settle. And then . . .

Well, who knows? We’ll toss our mortarboard in the air and see where it lands. 🙂

As always, time marches on. Enjoy the ride!

Darlene

You go, girls! Happy travels!

It’s almost summer, and that means travel, vacation, relaxing with friends, right? Hopefully there’s a little of that in your summer plans! I’ve heard of so many great girl trips lately, that I asked my favorite travel agent some questions about planning the best trip with friends.
Enjoy, and happy travels!
Chatting with Janet McLaren, Cruise Planners, personal travel advocate:
Thanks for inviting me to your blog! It’s always fun to talk about travel, and travel with friends is always the best!

 

IMG_3852– What are some of the most interesting or unusual girls’ trips you’ve arranged?
It seems like women either want to get away for relaxation at a resort with a good beach and spa, or they want a cultural adventure with a combination of organized events and independent exploring. I’d say for most interesting: a group of ladies who are going to Italian wine country this summer. They are sharing a villa near Florence for a week and taking day trips into the city and into surrounding towns, then spending two days in Rome.
Getaway cruises are always popular, too, because they are usually economical for everyone and don’t require as big a commitment of time. One group of ladies takes a short cruise to Mexico every January when the fares are low.

– A friend of mine recently visited Barcelona on a tour with her wine club. I’ve heard of book clubs attending author-sponsored cruises. Are these kinds of themed-trips gaining in popularity?
They are, but they are mostly arranged by private groups, not the cruise line. An exception is river cruising — several of the top lines “theme” a number of cruises each year. I’m looking at one for a group right now that is focused on beer (haha, right?), but there are wine themes, music, and Christmastime, too. Also, there are land tours that are geared for special interests. I know of literary-themed tours in England that focus on historical sites related to authors such as Jane Austin, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Dickens, for a few examples. Garden tours abound, as well as castle tours (think Downton Abbey, for instance), and “quaint towns.”

            Best shopping?   Mexico — the short cruises that go there, and the resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen are excellent for picking up handicrafts, jewelry, and clothes. New York and London shopping trips are still popular, although you have to watch the conversion rate of the British Pound to be sure popping off to London is a value or not.

            Best for beach/relaxing?  Interestingly, I get a fair number of inquiries about Miami Beach. The old-style glam resort hotels and the nightlife are very appealing. You get a nice combination of beach time, relaxation, and some fun. Restaurants are a big thing there, too. Of course many all-inclusive Caribbean and Mexican resorts have it all in one place! That’s probably the easiest getaway of all — just go, get transported to your resort, then don’t worry about very much at all. 

            Best sightseeing/culture?  Europe is still number one — history, churches, museums, wine, music, art, ancient architecture — it’s easy to come up with a common interest that binds a group together for a shared experience.

– Any tips or special advice for women traveling together?

Yes, I find that I am often reminding people that they cannot possibly do everything in one trip! Select a theme then let me help plan a reasonable, “do-able” outline that won’t exhaust you — decide on a few important highlights. Save some down time; not every minute has to be planned out and everyone could use a little “me time” mixed in, too.

– Any places you’d advise small groups of women to avoid?

Yes, sadly not all places in the world are travel-friendly to women and male-centric societies make for too much stress and worry. For some reason Dubai holds a fascination (I suppose for the shopping), but I wouldn’t choose it for a girlfriend getaway. India, China, some places in the Mideast and Africa — not worth it. Exceptions: I think a well-coordinated safari in certain locations would make a terrific all-woman adventure, and a historical or spiritual journey in Israel and Jordon would be safe and rewarding.

 

Thanks for sharing your time and expertise, Janet! I want to do it all! Dear readers, do you have a favorite spot for trips with friends? Tips or experiences to share? We’d love to hear them!

Contact Janet for additional info and ideas. 866-592-7351 | 972-231-0066 | jmclaren@cruiseplanners.com | www.cruiseplanforyou.com

Summer Romance: Five Alluring Getaways

This is for all you romantics out there who are looking for a cool getaway! Bon voyage!

I Luv2cruz!

Ah, the romantic summer vacation –warm days, scenic wonders, interesting things to do together —  a chance to reconnect away from the every day drudgery that saps the amour right out of you.

I’ve been consulting with my romance-writer friends, and we agree that these five trips are the best for reviving the romantic spirit:

  1. Rhine River cruise. Was it the day of castle-lined scenic cruising? The strolls through quaint, flower-filled towns? Or perhaps the gourmet dinners with real French champagne night after night? All I can say for sure is that falling in love again in this setting is as easy as nachtisch.
  2. Italy. Really, just anywhere — a tour, a cruise, a week in Rome — doesn’t matter. Multiple trips to the bel paese may be necessary to explore the full range of romantic options! I would suggest a tour of Venice, Florence, and Rome by…

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Enhancing your Romantic Getaway!

Whether your getaway-for-two is over Valentine’s Day or not, by land or by sea, you can enhance your romance wherever you go — without spending a fortune. Here are some inexpensive and easy tips: Find a garden. It could be right there at your resort, in a park near your hotel, or part of an […]

via Easy Ways to Enhance Your “Getaway” Romance — I Luv2cruz!

It’s really not the U.S. of A.

waterfallSo, Puerto Rico.

It’s a United States Territory. You don’t have to have a passport to go there. And they’ll take your American dollars just fine. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s the same as being in the U.S. It’s not.

I was there with the fam for spring break last week. Overall, I’d say we had a good time . . . but not everything went as expected. Just in case you ever decide to visit this tropical island, here are a couple of key things you might want to know: 1. Not everyone speaks English. Or, not well. 2. Yes, they drive on the right side of the streets there, but the highway signs are in SPANISH. There’s no selecting “1” to get the information in English. So if you plan to rent a car to do some sightseeing, you might want to brush up on your Espanol. It’s particularly helpful to know that East is Este, West is Oeste, etc. Fortunately, on the day we drove to the El Yunque rain forest, we had our son, who has just finished his second college-level Spanish class, with us. But then for a few days . . . we didn’t.

Oh, one other thing – Puerto Rico has crazy, bumper to bumper traffic! No one I talked to, no websites I perused or travel brochures I looked at ever mentioned the bad traffic. Getting from San Juan to Palmas Del Mar at 4 p.m. was truly as bad as driving in L.A., which is where we usually find ourselves on spring break. The taxi driver at the San Juan airport was not pleased about drawing our number that afternoon! Didn’t need fluency in Spanish to read his body language and figure that out.

Also, unless you have AT&T cell service, you’re going to rack up some significant charges if you want to use your phone’s GPS to help you get around. And don’t expect things to run on time. Well, according to a schedule, that is. Everything there is on “island time.” So when the hotel staff says the concierge will be there at 9 a.m., he might show up within the hour. Just because the guy at the golf cart/car rental place answers the phone and says you can pick up said vehicle, it does NOT mean he’s actually at the rental office. But don’t worry, he’ll get there eventually! An 8:30 snorkeling expedition? You could leave the marina around 9:30-ish. Maybe. If you’re a go-with-the-flow, “whatever” kind of person, this will be no problem for you. But if you’re used to running on time and scheduling activities, you might find the hurry-up-and-wait routine a little frustrating. I suggest you take a deep breath – and avoid wearing a watch.

In the first couple of days we were there, I found myself thinking I’d never go back, but as the week progressed, things improved. Once we got to the resort area and figured out the lay of the land (I mean found the pool and beach), we did OK. We had good food, found places to watch the NCAA basketball games, and enjoyed the sunshine and warm temperatures. Most people were friendly and helpful, and it was great to see both of my kids!

I’d go back – I’d just have different expectations! 🙂

So many sights to see!

Fallslibertyorca

With Spring Break upon us, and the promise of summer in the not-too-distant future (yay!) I’m thinking vacation!

I enjoy road trips and sightseeing. I think my favorite vacations combine a little nature and relaxation with exploring famous places. Most, well, all of my travel (except that brief cross into Canada to see Niagara Falls) has been in the United States. Though I’d love to cross the pond one of these days, there’s a lot to see in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Here are the Top 10 American landmarks or national parks I’ve been to so far:

  1. Mt. Rushmore
  2. Grand Canyon
  3. Badlands
  4. Yellowstone Park/Old Faithful
  5. Top of Pike’s Peak
  6. Olympic National Park
  7. Niagara Falls
  8. The Statue of Liberty
  9. The National Mall (monuments) including Capitol, White House, Library of Congress and several Smithsonian museums.
  10. Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Some other cool places or sights I’ve seen include Joshua Tree National Park, the Golden Gate Bridge and Sonoma/Napa wine areas, orcas in the San Juan Islands, Chincoteague/Assateague islands and the outerbanks of North Carolina, Sunrise at Haleakala National Park (volcano) in Maui, the bluebonnets blooming in Texas, Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Forest, and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Of course all of these places represent an adventure with stories all their own — I’ll get to those some other time. 🙂

Places I’d still like to explore some day: the Everglades, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite National Park, and Alaska/glaciers/Denali.

Which American landmark is your favorite, and what’s still on your list?

Have Fun . . . Stay Safe!

three girls015

 

Hello, everyone!
I was telling my favorite travel agent about my book club gals’ recent getaway to Branson, and she offered to send along some expert travel tips for women. So if a girls’ getaway is in your plans this summer (and I hope so!), here are a few reminders for having fun and staying safe. Happy travels to all!

1. Staying Healthy — advance planning is key. I always gather up a small bag of supplies as sort of an “emergency kit” with items such as a packet of Kleenex, some cough drops, tube of Dramamine pills, sheet of Pepto-Bismol tablets, tiny bottle of hand sanitizer, handful of Band-aids, tube of Neosporin, and some sort of headache remedy.
Get your prescriptions filled, too, and keep all of these items in your carry-on. Since you can’t carry onto a plane liquid items of more than three ounces, be sure to pack in your check-bag some sunscreen and insect repellant as well.
These are especially important for international travel, because you don’t know how easy/difficult it might be to find such items at your destination and they will certainly cost a lot more (on my last trip with friends someone had to buy cough drops and they were four Euros for a pack of 8!).
In most places, quality hotels, resorts, and restaurants are going to have water and tea that you can safely drink, but do purchase bottled water from the hotel or at a store (not from street vendors) to have while you’re out. But don’t avoid water, because letting yourself get dehydrated will make you feel sick. Go easy on the alcohol. Eat meals and snacks when you get a chance and resist the urge to worry about your weight! You need energy! Feeling too-hungry in the middle of the day will zap the fun right out of you and make you feel queasy.
And I must mention: never, ever approach an animal, either wild or domesticated.

2. Personal Security — let someone know your itinerary – what are your flights, where are you supposed to be and when, hotel names, etc. Working with a travel agent is a good idea, too, for smooth coordination of logistics and records of each reservation detail. I wouldn’t put all this information in your check-bag, but a note with your name and the phone number of your next stop inside would be helpful to your airline/tour operator/cab company if your bag were to be misplaced.
Everyone knows about safeguarding your room keys, not disclosing your room information to anyone outside of your group, and using in-room safes for jewelry, small electronics, and travel documents that you don’t want to carry with you while you’re “out and about.” Never leave your purse, camera, or phone unattended. A cross-body bag that you can hold in front of you is the best accessory to take.
Stay together as best you can, and wear comfortable shoes that you could run in to escape a mugger or pickpocket. People romance about the idea of getting “off the beaten path,” but seriously, it is much better for your sightseeing value and for your safety to stick with the “touristy” areas.

3. Security of Possessions — file a report with your airline immediately, before you leave the airport, if your bag doesn’t show up on the carousel! You are entitled to certain expense reimbursements in the event of delayed or lost luggage, so look up those policies on their website and be prepared to stand firm for your rights just in case. Also on that website – information on restricted items, which will certainly be confiscated if you mistakenly pack them (forget about your aerosol hairspray, sorry).
Never pack your travel documents, medications, electronics, valuable jewelry, or anything you can’t live without for a day or two. Leave your designer clothes behind. I’ve had items stolen from checked bags – new bottle of fragrance, new tube of toothpaste (!?), fancy face cream – so now I never take anything new, and I tuck tampons around my expensive personal-care products that I can’t live without (TSA and airline employees won’t touch them!).
Look out for each other – lost on our trip: a pair of sunglasses, a cap, and a jacket! If we had all been alert to check the back of a chair, glance under the table, or give the area one last go-over we wouldn’t have gone off and left them.
And last, don’t over-fret about things (lose a bag and have to buy a couple of new outfits? Oh darn… ) Maintain a sense of perspective on the very slim chance of anything bad happening – of course you want to be prepared and use common sense – but you really want to relax and enjoy your trip!

Tips from Janet McLaren, Travel Specialist
Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative
972-231-0066, 1-866-592-7351
jmclaren@cruiseplanners.com
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http://www.cruiseplanforyou.com
Travel Blog: http://luv2cruz.wordpress.com
Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/cruiseplanforyou

2014: An intersection of fiction and real life

P1040474I have to say most of the time I’m not all that giddy-excited about ending one year and starting a new one. Most years have been pretty good. I suppose, though, it’s a good time to take a moment and reflect.
A couple of weeks ago, I went through the year in photos to create the annual custom calendar for my dad for Christmas. Turns out, we had a lot going on in 2014. As a family, we went places and did things. We had a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The biggest event of the year was my son’s high school graduation. Not only did that mean we were sending our awesome son off to college, it meant my husband and I became empty nesters. That’s been very strange, and kind of sad. But it’s also been fun to see him mature and thrive, to deal with new situations and responsibilities. For me, his graduation also meant the end of an era – years and years of volunteering in the kids’ schools. No more band concessions, book fairs, debate boosters, tennis banquets, etc., etc.
It was a year for vacations that included spring break in California and a trip to Joshua National Park near Palm Desert. And our daughter was able to fly in to join us. Made our annual trek to Colorado in July and then headed to the east coast in October for a little beach action and visit with our daughter who’s now out in the working world. Lots of fun times.

Of course my real life intersected with a life of fiction! In 2014, I published my fourth novel. Have to say that is really cool. There were times I doubted I could finish even one. I strengthened ties with critique partners, sold a few more books, and created a new website. I met other authors, made connections with retailers and readers and librarians. As Three Writers of Romance, my critique partners and I were guest speakers and spotlighted in a local magazine.

Looking to 2015, I see a lot more activity. I’m kicking off the new year with my fifth novel – yes, FIFTH. “Second Wind,” the second book in my Women of Whitfield small-town trilogy, launches Jan. 10.
The months will zip by, and once again we’ll be in California for spring break. This time, we’ll get to see our son play college tennis in an invitational tournament there! Hopefully, shortly after that, our daughter will be accepted to a PhD program and will take a huge step in furthering her education and career. The pace won’t slow down at all in April, as my husband and I will join a friend at the Final Four in Indianapolis (Come on, Jayhawks, let’s get it together!), then I’m scheduled for a book sale and signing at a women’s event in Dallas.
In what promises to be a highlight of the coming year, my book club is planning a girls’ retreat in a lovely natural area near Branson, Mo. I’m going to need those four days to unwind, rejuvenate, relax and write. A change of scenery always seems to get the creative juices flowing.

I can’t say what the second half of the year will bring, but I know I can count on a busy schedule. I’ll look forward to seeing what opportunities unfold for my kids. I’ll keep writing – hoping that 2015 will be a two-book year. I’ll attempt to keep up with the changes in the publishing industry, and working to connect with readers. I’ll probably fight with technology and be overwhelmed by social media and marketing.
My goals for the year, I suppose, are to enjoy the travels and times with my family. To eat lunch out with friends as often as I can. To read, and to write books that resonate with others who love to read and get lost in a world of fiction.
Happy New Year and happy reading to all!