So, About Traveling

When I was younger, I always hoped I would be able to travel more. All I knew was a handful of countries within the Caribbean, South America and Europe, never even really traveling within my own country. Granted, that's certainly more than many Americans since only (a shocking, yet not so shocking) 36% are passport holders. It wasn't until I went away for college that I realized there was so much to see and it was all pretty much within my reach.

Flash forward to New Year's Eve 2016. I was en route to Chicago to meet a friend and sat next to an incredibly friendly traveler: Cait. She was on her way back from spending two weeks in Cyprus. Why? Because she just felt like exploring. I want to say she was a teacher at the time? Hearing her incredibly approachable and relatable stories to how she started collecting passport stamps, I spent a lot of my trip to Chicago thinking about how easy it could be to travel. Ladies and gentlemen, I started 2016 with the travel bug and I haven't been able to shake it off since.

I'm the first to admit I made pretty irresponsible decisions when I started traveling. I was already using the Delta Skymiles credit card and had racked up a few points to my use, but I spent a lot of money traveling that year (more on this will come to light over the next few weeks, oy vey). I didn't really understand what a "deal" meant, and I was still living this "omg I have a salary" attitude which meant not knowing how not to throw away my money. My reason for traveling that year was:

"I want to collect as many Snapchat location filters as I can, and travel somewhere every month."

I accomplished it that year. With a little bit of work and leisure travel I hit more than 12 cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Austin, The Bahamas, New York (multiple times), Washington D.C., and more. With each new experience, I became much more well versed in travel and allowed myself to spend less time on the "how to do it" and more brain power appreciating each unique place I was visiting.

In 2017, I vowed to keep the momentum going. This time it wasn't for Snapchat filters (can someone please smack 24-year-old me?), but it was to further explore the world and connect with friends or strangers (#solotravel). I learned a lot from my mistakes and triumphs, but here are the highlights:

Start a travel savings account

One of the many times I'll tell you, don't be Lissette. Traveling is much more fun when you don't have leftover debt from your last trip looming over your head. Aside from tactics like setting aside money each month toward travel, I use Digit to automatically save money each day. Their nifty algorithm takes into account your spending habits and sends moola to a savings platform, which you can set up with categories like "travel." It's incredible how at the end of a few months, I've got enough for at least 2 flights without having moved a muscle. Another indirect way to save is making sure you're taking advantage of frequent flier programs. Even if you think you won't be using that airline more than once or twice, you never know where those benefits come in handy. And you're also missing out on a ton if you don't have a points card. I'm a personal Amex evangelist and started off with the Delta card before switching to Platinum (here's 40,000 points, you're welcome). 

Do your deal-search.

There are hundreds of very legit deal seeker apps and websites. I personally use Kayak as my go-to for booking flights because I feel I'm getting the most comprehensive, and cheapest, results. Google Flights is where I get my second peek, with Amex Travel as my final destination since I get bonus points for booking through them. If you're looking for something to track flight prices, Kayak provides a nifty tool for that or Hopper is another crowd favorite. If you have no idea where to go but you know you have dates in mind, I'm obsessed with Skycanner's "Everywhere" search tool which shows you the cheapest flights around the world on your chosen dates. I'd also recommend following top bloggers in this space like The Points Guy or Scott's Cheap Flights. Take advantage of signing up for your favorite airlines' newsletters as you'll get the best deals in real-time. The biggest takeaway is to never take the first price you see as the end-all-be-all. There's probably something much cheaper out there. 

Book the damn flight.

The hardest part about travel is booking the flight. And more often than not, the most expensive part. Once you feel you've done your due diligence and squeezed every reward, deal, tracker, etc., for the cheapest flight available, it's time to hit the "purchase" button. So much of the rest of the journey will be easy to figure out, especially if you're flexible, once this piece is done. If you're trying to corral a group of friends for a trip, make the first move. Once one person is in, others will follow. Four of my major trips last year involved friend groups of more than 3 people and I was always the first one to kick things off (cc: Cuba, Mexico City, Summer Euro Tour, Morocco). 

Take advantage of AirBnb or phone a friend.

The next most expensive part is usually the accommodations piece. The only time I've slept at a hotel in the last two years is when it involves work travel and the booking is outside of my control. I live by AirBnb (here's a discount code for that). There's something so special about staying in a home vs. a stuffy hotel. Many times, if you do enough research and book in a timely manner, you're getting amenities and a value that is incomparable to what you would get at a hotel. They're also adding AirBnb "Plus" now, so you can get that more upgraded vibe that you would get at something like a boutique hotel. If you're feeling social and on a super tight budget, don't forget to peek at Hostels. And, of course, if you're lucky enough to have friends at a destination don't be afraid to come clean about wanting to crash. I know I am incredibly flexible about letting friends bunk with me given that so many have opened their home for me in the past. 

Use an itinerary app or digital assistant.

Remember the days of using a travel agent? This was a booming industry for a reason. There's a sense of peace to having someone else do all the work for you, so in this DIY culture I'd still recommend you get a digital travel assistant of some kind. If you follow along my stories, you'll see that I hold all my travels under Kayak's handy app. I can't even bother to write about other recommendations because I've simply found nothing as useful as this. For starters, you can link your e-mail address to it so that any travel-related communication gets stored and created as a "trip." It's also smart enough to know the pieces that belong to a trip, rather than starting a whole new itinerary with every incoming message. For example: When you book the flight, you've got a new "trip" created but once the accommodations, activities, rental cars, etc., roll in, they're simply added under the same cover. The app also includes a simple-to-read guide for your confirmation number, security gate wait times, airport maps, receipts, phone numbers, addresses, etc. And it's also incredibly up-to-date so you'll get delays and gate changes in real-time on the app.

Stick to a carry on, I believe in you.

If you want to live the frequent traveler life, you've got to sacrifice on space. And I promise, it's actually a huge benefit. You're saving the hassle of going to the gate to drop off, waiting for your bag afterward, or risking lost luggage during an important trip. I always travel with my Raden carry-on (hooray for charging ports) and my Madewell Transport Tote for the laptop, snacks and things I need at hand. A few times, I've added a Herschel Fanny Pack if I want an added layer of ease (plus, it's mad cute and affordable). I also live by the "rolling your clothes" technique, which I learned on a trip to NYC with my friend Dani from her aunt after I had a hilarious overpacking experience. It also helps to cut down by only bringing what you'll use. Making lists in advance helps filter through this. Ok, I get it, this topic deserves its own post and I'll get it to you soon. Note: many airports are following the Euro-centric rule of putting liquids in a clear ziplock bag. You're safest if you keep all things in a pouch of your choice and make sure to pack the clear bag to get you through security if you're asked to remove it from your bag. They made me take it out of my carry-on in a U.S. airport recently, yikes!

Sign-up for TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry.

There's nothing like showing up to the airport 40 minutes before your flight, making it to the gate without running, getting to your seat without problems, and enjoying a smooth ride to your destination. Well, the only way to save yourself about an hour at the airport is by signing up for TSA Pre-Check. It is one of the handiest helpers, and I'm unsure how people travel without it. You keep your shoes on, no one gives you major issues, and the lines are usually a 5-15 minute experience. If you travel abroad a lot, or plan to, Global Entry might be a better fit and that comes with Pre-Check already. Global Entry makes the customs experience on your return a smooth 5-15 minute experience. #HackAlert: Mobile Passport App is free, has been even faster for me than Global Entry sometimes, it's my favorite thing to share with friends!

Step out of your comfort zone.

Wether you're traveling with a group or alone, the most important advice I can give you is this. Some of the most memorable travel experiences are when you go somewhere new (obviously) and when you do something a little different. Maybe it means staying at someone's home via AirBnb, or booking a guided tour of the historic center with a local, maybe you want to do something adventurous, maybe you just make it a goal to strike up a conversation with locals while riding public transportation. Just be flexible and open minded, and take it all in like a sponge. I'm personally a huge fan of journaling while traveling and use these travel-friendly notebooks to doodle in.

After writing this, I realized there's no way to consolidate what I've learned in anything less than an 100-page book of travel hacks. And I am the first to admit I am seriously overdue in sharing this information with you all. Would love to hear more about what sorts of travel topics you want to hear more about from me. Is it planning? Is it time management? Is it cutting costs? Packing? Things I take with me? City guides? Etc. Let me know in the comments below or send me a message on social.

Bon voyage, friends!

“Tu Cuba”: Embarking on a Life-Changing Family Reunion

My mom’s Ecuadorian and my dad’s Cuban – well, kind of Spanish too...He was born there but, you know, fled to Spain. I guess you can just call me Hispanic.”

For more than two decades, that’s what a typical introduction to my culture sounded like. Because of multiple visits, I’d always felt connected to the Ecuadorian third of me. If you asked me about Cuba, all I could say is I didn’t know much other than the fact that my dad was born in 1959 – the year of La Revolución - and packed his bags to move to Spain where he would meet the rest of his family. All this changed after embarking on the inaugural CubaOne trip to the mysterious island; and for me, it was the first time I would be able to meet my paternal grandmother.

Lissette Calveiro Cuban American

For half a century, many Cubans – my father included – refused to return to the island they once called home. In La Habana, tensions were high, standard of living was low, and families were broken up throughout the process of the Cuban Revolution. When I thought about Cuba, I didn’t think of it as a place that was only 90 miles away. Cuba was enigmatic. La Habana wasn’t just a place on a map I hadn’t traveled to, yet, but a missing piece in my family’s history.

My mother’s side of her ‘American Dream’ story is easy to tell. As a single mom in the early 90s, she applied for U.S. residency and packed her bags to move to the states. She went from being a teacher, to being a decorator and worked endlessly to build a life for her household. My father’s side of the story was made up of the bits and pieces I could gather through family discussions or his one-off rants about why he left Cuba.

He was born in the cusp of the Cuban Revolution and lived in Playa, La Habana until the early 80s. His brother, Roberto Calveiro, was involved in the 1980 Canimar River Massacre where a group of young Cubans attempted to hijack an excursion boat with intentions to escape to Miami. After the Cuban government captured the boat and incarcerated his 15-year-old brother, my father then became a target for Cuban government officials. His life would never be the same, and so he fled to Madrid, Spain with a residency. His eyes were set on reaching U.S. soil so he trekked through Europe until he illegally hopped on a flight from London to Miami to seek political refuge. He succeeded, and then settled in Miami to work in the tourism industry. With tears in his eyes, he tells a story of running off the plane to wrap himself around an American flag screaming, “freedom!”

Havana Cuba.jpg

Despite being on the side of Cuban Americans who didn’t want diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, I always had a curiosity for what it would be like to visit. I didn’t want to go on a trip to sit on the beach in Varaderos or take selfies in El Prado, I hoped that I could find a way to visit with the most authentic experience. I was seeking a path that would give me a 360-degree view of Cuba, while allowing me to build connections with my peers on the island. Scrolling through my social media networks, I found the answer: this program by millennials and for millennials with a mission to take Cuban Americans on the trip of a lifetime.

CubaOne Foundation offers a new generation of Cuban Americans the opportunity to give back to Cuba, build relationships with the Cuban people, and explore their heritage through high-impact trips to the island. The “Tu Cuba” program wants Cuban Americans to visit Cuba, experience it, talk about it, and think about what a new relationship with Cuba means for them and their communities in the U.S.

“We believe that taking young Cuban Americans to Cuba to engage with the Cuban people will allow for a deeper understanding of identity and family heritage,” says their founding team. “We hope that our participants in these trips will form a committed alumni network that translates their experience into ongoing conversation within their communities and spark a discourse that will foster informed advocates for the Cuban people in the years to come.”

After countless of stories from friends and family about both the oppression and beauty of the island, I wanted to be able to go and make a story for myself. I wanted to see the sights and sounds of La Habana, but I wanted to do it from a conscious and meaningful standpoint. And most importantly, I wanted to turn black and white photos of my grandmother into colorful memories I could pass on to my children and theirs.

Fast-forward two months later, and I’m walking off a charter plane into José Martí International Airport. The trip took us through picture-perfect foliage in Pinar del Rio, a convertible tour of La Habana landmarks, people-to-people connections in off-the-tourist-path neighborhoods like Regla, vibrant alleys of El Callejón de Hamel, eating cajitas in el Malecon, networking events with young entrepreneurs at the Ludwig Foundation, and visits to a myriad of local businesses and paladares owned by Cubans with a self-employment license. We built networks that would stretch beyond 90 miles and curated lifelong bonds within the cohort and the Cuban people we interacted with. The itinerary was built to offer us a vibrant experience of the island, while letting us freely explore “the other side” so many of our parents talk to us about.

On the third day, I took a trip to the concrete suburb of Alamar to meet my grandmother for the first time. I was at a loss for emotions before arriving to meet her. What does she look like? Will she like me? What if we have nothing to talk about? My mind was running at a million miles an hour and I didn’t know when it would stop. And it did. Every question I had fleeted the moment I saw my grandmother’s smiling face from her balcony. I ran upstairs and hugged her like I knew her my whole life. She looked and me and jokingly said “you’re too skinny,” and that’s when I knew I finally found my Cuban Abuela.

Growing up in Miami, I’d been surrounded by Cuban grandmothers my whole life. But I never connected with the fact that my very own was a 30-minute plane ride away and, for a while, I couldn’t actually get to her. We shared photos, conversations and, of course, a delicious Cuban meal together. Getting to know her was definitely like finding a missing puzzle piece in my dad’s story and finally being able to put it together to complete mystory.

Lissette Calveiro Cuba.jpg

Before meeting her I had just finished a walking tour of La Habana Vieja, where we saw a sharp contrast between the tourist-facing zones and the residential alleys where things were in less than average condition. When I stepped out the vehicle in my grandmother’s neighborhood, I was devastated to see that her living conditions, too, were nowhere near perfect. Because of this, my first tough question to her was “why did you stay?” Her answer was similar to the other locals’ answers: this is my home, this is my community and, though things could always be better, it is mine .

She talked to me a lot about food shortages, and less about issues with the Cuban government – my expectation of where her complaints would lie. It made me realize that I wasn’t coming to Cuba with an open mind; I was coming with an American mind. It was easy to get lost in this “we are better off because #democracy” mentality and thought I knew the problems they were facing and solutions to better their situation.

Example? I was expecting Cubans to be very behind in business, agriculture and technology because they physically didn’t have the advanced tools or resources that other countries do. I was surprised to see that though they didn’t have fancy machines or widespread public internet, they definitely had the ideas and “Cuban Way” of getting similar things done. The Conoce Cuba app is basically our version of Yelp!

There are things that can be vastly improved, like any other country including our own, but if I didn’t start looking at this trip with an open mind I would then never learn about Cuba today. This knowledge of the island could only be gained through relationships and genuine interactions on the island. This realization completely changed my mind about what I thought about Cuban-American diplomatic relations.

If you ask me what I think about Cuba now, I’d say it’s a symbol of resilience. Everything that I saw, felt and realized about my trip went back to this idea of “bouncing back” and “staying strong” regardless of the situation. Those who fled, had to begin again in a new country and those who stayed had to adjust to a new way of life.

“Things function interestingly around here, but they function,” said a local business owner.

When I first came back, I thought, “nothing’s changed I’m still Hispanic.” But over time an interesting shift has happened. I went from trying to stay out of the complicated Cuba conversation to being armed with a personal experience on the island that would help engage in dialogue between the two cultures.

I went on this trip looking for answers, but I came back with more questions. While Cuba now is definitely far from perfect, it was incredible to see the feeling of resilience and community that overpowered the island. It reminded me of what happens when a person loses one of their five senses; the other ones become stronger. I’ve never seen neighbors and strangers care and support each other more than the Cuban people.

Though I went with intentions to connect with my grandmother and father’s side of the story, my visit to Cuba was like being welcomed into one giant, 11 million people sized, familia.

To learn more about CubaOne Foundation’s “Tu Cuba” program or to donate and make this trip possible for many other young Cuban Americans, please visit www.cubaone.org.

United States of Food: America’s Most Popular Tastes Identified

It’s finally Summer in Miami — although I’d like to argue that summer really started at some point in February.

With school being on hold, college grads traveling home for a “gap year,” and the lucky few enjoying the glory of Summer Friday, we finally have more time to enjoy the luxury of our very own backyard. Try new foods, try new gyms, shop somewhere different, walk to a park, take a local road trip and explore what your city’s made of.

Oh, you heard me say food and tuned out after that, right? Lucky for you, readers far and wide, Foursquare just shared their interactive Unique Taste Map of the U.S. analyzing data and consolidating it into a graph that you – and that guy from your hometown still trying to become a rap star – will understand.

What does “unique taste” actually mean? Every state is bound by its culture and culinary influences. Most states have popular dishes that others won’t care about elsewhere, or don’t have access to elsewhere (ask Wyoming how often they serve “catch of the day”). So, ladies, gentlemen and foodies, click and indulge in America’s Most Popular Tastes.

Wait, there’s more — you know there’s always more. The interactive map helps guide you to the most popular restaurants (by check-in activity) to find these so-called unique foods.

Florida‘s staple is Conch Fritters and here’s what “survey says…”:

Alabama Jack’s, Key Largo, FL

 COURTESY OF ALABAMA JACKS

COURTESY OF ALABAMA JACKS

“PULL YOUR BOAT UP AND TAKE A SEAT. THIS IS A KEYS TRADITION.” – RYAN

BO’s Fish Wagon, Key West, FL

 COURTESY OF FLICKR

COURTESY OF FLICKR

“LOOKS LIKE A HOLE IN THE WALL. BUT VERY GOOD SEAFOOD, NO MATTER WHAT YOU ORDER. CONCH FRITTERS ARE THE BEST. WE COME HERE EVERY TIME WE’RE IN KEY WEST.” – MICHAEL

Scotty’s Landing, Miami, FL

 COURTESY OF MIAMI EVERYDAY PHOTO

COURTESY OF MIAMI EVERYDAY PHOTO

“GET A PITCHER AND ORDER THE CONCH FRITTERS. DELISH.” – KRISTIN

Conch Shack, Key West, FL

 COURTESY OF JET SET SARAH

COURTESY OF JET SET SARAH

“CHEAP PBR TALL BOYS AND AWESOME CONCH FRITTERS… WHAT MORE COULD ONE ASK FOR?” – DWAIN

Hogfish Bar & Grill, Stock Island, FL

 COURTESY OF KEYSTV

COURTESY OF KEYSTV

“THE FOOD HERE IS AMAZEBALLS! AWESOME BURGER, AWESOME COCONUT SHRIMP, AWESOME LOBSTER BISQUE, AWESOME CONCH FRITTERS!” – JOHN

What’s the verdict? Yay or nay to these recommended Conch Fritter havens?

What are some of your unique tastes of Florida? Let’s chat below!