Aspen

My birthday was this past Monday and to celebrate, my boyfriend treated me to a little weekend get-away in Aspen.  We drove from Boulder and the scenery along the drive was absolutely spectacular.

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At the lower elevations the trees still had their vibrant leaves making hillsides appear ablaze.

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We stopped in Vail for lunch and ate along the creek.  I’ve visited several times to ski in the winter, but it was even prettier this time of year. I posted on my instastory (follow me @howboutsomecake) but forgot to snap any proper photos!

Getting back on the road, there were more views at every twist and turn.

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I wish it were possible to capture the way the yellow leaves look as the sun begins to set and casts just the right light to make them sparkle like actual gold. It’s really brilliant, and no camera could ever do it justice.

When we arrived at our hotel, I needed a quick nap (of course). We stayed just outside Aspen at the Viceroy in Snowmass, which was lovely and romantic, but not super convenient.  It was about a 20 minute drive into Aspen.  We arrived a bit early for our dinner reservation so we walked around the quaint little town and grabbed a glass of wine at a cute spot called Meat & Cheese.

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Then we went to Ellina for dinner, where I mostly forgot to take pictures again… except for the cake, of course. I do wish I’d captured more because it was lovely.  It’s underground and the stone and white tabletops made me feel like I’d been transported to Greece or southern Italy.  The food and service were both top notch, so I’d highly recommend it if you’re ever in Aspen.

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The next morning we got up early to go to Maroon Bells.  It’s a national park with some hiking and one fairly famous picturesque spot.  I took selfies, and usies, and then we got in the car and left immediately because it was FREEZING!

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Normally I’d want to hike around the area, but given the weather, I just wanted to leave.  We found warmth and sustenance back in Aspen at Justice Snow’s, where we both enjoyed some brisket hash (and I had a mimosa, because it’s my birthday).

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After brunch we started making our way slowly back to Denver so I could catch my flight.  We still stopped for more breathtaking views, though.

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It was a really nice, relaxing weekend and I enjoyed every moment.  I’ll be back in Colorado in a couple of weeks. I can’t wait to see how it’s changed with the season!

 

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Paris

IMG_5918After several nights in Nice, Katie and I took a train to Paris.  I love trains, and traveling through the Provencal French countryside is about as picturesque as you can get. We arrived early afternoon and hailed an Uber to our hotel.

As you may remember, I fell head over heels for Paris earlier this year and I was excited to experience it again with my friend, since it was her first time in the magical city.  Just like me, she became completely enamored from the moment we arrived.

IMG_5926We wasted no time in dropping our bags and heading out for a wander.  Since we were located near the Eiffel Tower, it was the first place we went.  We spent the next couple of hours exploring the city on foot; tracing the Seine and stopping into whatever shop caught our interest.

IMG_5939For dinner that evening we dined at a cafe a few blocks from our hotel.  Ever indecisive, we made a habit of sharing all our meals.  The first night, we sprung for French Onion Soup (there, they just call it “onion soup”), esgargot, sea bass, and duck confit.

IMG_5937It was fabulous and we were delightfully satisfied and tipsy when we fell into bed that evening.

IMG_5947The next day we woke up and headed straight for Musee D’orsay, stopping for just a quick croissant along the way.  I’d desperately wanted to see this museum on my last trip, but the line was ridiculously long.  That morning we walked right up and into the museum using the tickets I’d bought online.  Not until the next day, when we saw the line wrapped around the block, did we fully appreciate the luck we’d had.  I think the lesson there is go Friday morning instead of Saturday, if you can!

The rest of the morning was spent attentively listening to our audio guides (Katie’s favorite thing, after escargot).  We took in Van Gogh and Monet and other greats until our tummies were rumbling and we struck out in search of food.

IMG_5967Our search took us across the river and over to the Champs Elysees where we shared pizza and pasta (and of course, rose).  With food in our bellies, we headed to Louis Vuitton where Katie purchased her first piece (aptly named “Louis the first”. You can thank me for that one).  We sipped more rose and waited in the personalization lounge where they carefully embossed her initials in gold. Then we called an uber and headed back to the hotel for our standard afternoon nap.

IMG_0584Later that evening, we ventured North a bit for some Chinese food a show at the Moulin Rouge.  Neither of us really knew what to expect.  We were led into the theater, which is very french and pretty, and seated at a table with two other couples.  The six of us were packed in like sardines, and our table was overflowing with buckets of champagne (one per couple, included with the tickets we bought).  Right on time, the show began and immediately I knew this night would be a highlight of the trip.  A huge group of dancers appeared on stage in head to toe sparkles, and it just got better from there.  The singing and dancing acts are amazing, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.  At one point, the a giant tank of huge snakes in water emerges from the floor and a woman dives in and dances with them underwater. Another act consists of a man hurling around a woman on roller skates.  And the acrobats rivaled Cirque du Soleil. It’s truly a must see. Pictures were forbidden inside, or I would have overwhelmed you with them.

IMG_0094Our last day in Paris, we planned to go to the Louvre but the line was insanely long. Considering the rain, it wasn’t worth the wait, so we headed to Angelina’s for their famous hot chocolate. We kept meandering through the city, stopping to admire art and grab some lunch.  We did a lap around Notre Dame (again, an insane line to enter) and called an uber to head back for – you guessed it – a nap.

IMG_1607Around 6 PM I yanked Katie from bed and we went darting over to the Eiffel Tower, for some final photos before we lost the sun. I know that one day, when we’re old and gray, we’ll look back at these and remember the wonderful times we’ve had traveling the world together.

IMG_3413Another carb-heavy dinner, two bottles of red, and we were back in bed.  Our car arrived early the next morning to take us to the airport.  Like all good things, the trip had come to an end.  We’re already planning our trip back.

 

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The French Riviera

IMG_5606I’m having one of those weeks where I keep pinching myself because life feels so surreal.  Traveling with your best friend is always fun, but when you’re her +1 on a free trip to Nice, it’s just sublime.

IMG_5875IMG_5605We arrived Sunday afternoon and checked into Le Negresco, one of Nice’s most famous hotels.  It’s absolutely breathtaking both inside and out.  It sits facing the Mediterranean, with its iconic dome is easy to spot from almost anywhere along The Promenade des Anglais (so named for all the English people who spend/spent their winters there).  Every morning (ok today it was afternoon) we awake in the lap of luxury and peer out at the sparkling blue waters that have earned the moniker “Cote d’Azur” (azure means blue in French).

IMG_5607We’ve spent a lot of time meandering through the streets, exploring the city and tasting nearly every bakery and gelato shop we encounter.

IMG_5866IMG_5848We’ve done some wonderful excursions as well.  My favorite so far has been the evening we spent in Monaco.  It’s about 45 minutes by car or bus up the coastline, and you might miss the border without a keen eye.

We stopped first at The Rock, where the palace is.  Austere from the outside, the interior is nothing short of magnificent.  With rooms decorated in styles of all the famous Henry’s and frescos that date back centuries, every nook and cranny holds a rich story.  Tragically, we were not permitted to take photographs.  However just outside the palace offered some amazing views of Monte Carlo.

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IMG_5688The famous Monte Carlo yacht show began the day after our visit, so we got to see the bay full of the most amazing and extravagant boats in the world.  Known for it’s opulence, extreme wealth, and decadent luxury, Monte Carlo certainly lives up to its reputation.  A small principality, they have some fascinating policies around taxes and residence.  Anyone who stays in the country for at least 6 months and 1 day is exempt from paying taxes.  They are also guaranteed employment (if they lose a job, the government will find them a new one).  However real estate is ungodly expensive.  While the glamour alone is enough to draw me in for a visit, the best thing about Monaco is the safety.  With an abundance of police (both uniformed and plain clothed) you can feel quite secure.

After touring the palace and chapel at The Rock, we continued to Monte Carlo where we traveled part of the route for the famous grand prix.  We had a lovely dinner al fresco at the Cafe de Paris, next to the famous Casino, then snuck over there for a look around and some casual gambling.

IMG_5709My longtime readers will know that I’ve spent quite a bit of time in casinos and am well-versed in the etiquette and culture. That said, the casino was one of the most disappointing “attractions” I’ve ever visited in my life.  There’s a 17 euro (about $20) entrance fee, which we only learned afterwards is supposed to afford you a free cocktail.  Of course, the painfully rude staff does not inform you of this upon entrance.  What you see when you walk in is two very beautiful rooms.  The first has one craps table, maybe two blackjack tables, and a bar area with some seating.  The second room has about 20 slot machines.  It is nearly silent, and the glamorous cars parked out front clearly didn’t belong to the everyday folk who were seated at the (mostly empty) tables.  If not for the lovely decor, the place would be nothing short of melancholy.  Most of the building is private salons where they whisk away high rollers to gamble in secrecy.  All this to say – if you’re ever there, don’t waste your time and money by entering.  We concurred that the Monte Carlo in Vegas is superior to the real one (and that’s really saying something, because it’s not that nice!)  I snapped a forbidden photo so you can see the interior and know that you’re not missing anything.

IMG_5728Yesterday, we traveled down to Cannes and visited Ile Saint-Honorat, which I wrote about here.  After quick naps and an INCREDIBLE dinner at Safari (get the pesto pasta – best I’ve ever had!) we headed out for a night on the town.  We stopped first at a place called “The American Bar” for some after dinner drinks.  Then we went next door for some raucous karaoke with about 100 delightfully hammered Dutch soccer fans.  Soon we were all arm in arm, essentially moshing to “Cotton Eyed Joe” (pause for processing – weird, right!?).  We sang and danced until the bar closed and we were thrust upon the streets to navigate our way home.  Suffice to say it was an epic evening I won’t soon forget.

IMG_5854We are completely smitten with Nice, but our departure is bittersweet. We are heading to one of my favorite places in the world- Paris.  I’ll be sure to share more stories and photos soon!

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Central Restaurante [Lima, Peru]

[Note: This post is a little out of order.  It took me a while to write, but it should have been the first one from Peru.]

In most Masters programs, students write a thesis.  In my Business School program, we do an international consulting project instead. After hundreds of hours of meetings and research, five of my colleagues and I flew to Lima this week to present our recommendations to our client.  Afterwards we celebrated with the most memorable meal of my life at Central Restaurante.

You might not have heard of it, but in the food world, Central is famous.  This year it was ranked 5th in the world (#1 in Latin America) and it was also featured in an episode of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table.  We enjoyed the famous Mater Elevations menu, which features 17 courses representing different elevations from around Peru.

Before I dive into the first course, I’ll give you a little background.  Chef Virgilio Martinez Veliz and his sister, who has a science background, source their ingredients from all over the country.  From the Netflix episode, I remember him saying that they use about 150 ingredients from around Peru but only half of them are known food items. This means that some of the courses are a bit weird, making the meal an adventure.  Each course came with an explanation, and we required instructions on what to eat (and how…. and in some cases, in which order).  In addition to unique ingredients and creative preparation, the presentation was bar none.  The food, and the dishes they were served on, were unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before.

It was a bit dark, so apologies for the photo quality, but I think you’ll be able to appreciate the effort and precision that went into the presentation of each bite.

I’ll spare you in-depth coverage of each course, and just cover my favorites instead.  We started off strong with Rock Mullucs  – Elevation: -10.  The menu describes it as “Sea snail, Mussel, Sargassum, and Limpet”. This is one of the ones where we needed instruction most. The wooden sticks on the barnacle (barnacle for decoration only) were intended to be used as spoons so that we could scoop the dark jam-textured concoction onto a puffed algae crisp.  The flavors and the mouth feel were both incredible, leaving us in anxious anticipation of the next course.

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This eager anticipation was part of the defining experience of this meal.  I always look forward to dessert, but this meal was so much more than food.  The second course was one of the weirder ones. This is a crisp leaf covered in some kind of green powder.  It wasn’t delicious, but it wasn’t bad either.  The little red bite at the top were one of my favorites from the evening.  They were cold and melted on the tongue.

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Another stand-out course was the piranha.  The course consisted of two different things using different parts of the fish.  One was crispy slivers of the skin, served atop a plate made of the aggressive fish’s dismembered head.

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FullSizeRender 7Perhaps my favorite course was the sea urchin.  I tried sea urchin a couple of years ago at a sushi restaurant in San Diego.  At the time, I wasn’t crazy about it.  Both the texture and the flavor turned me off so I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much this time around.  The flavors of the sea urchin (the orange part of the picture above) paired perfectly with the thin slices of melon.

FullSizeRenderThis beautiful dish was also one of the most delicious.  It’s a massive river fish that we enjoyed prepared several different ways while in Lima. They called it, Colors of Amazonia and described it as “Paiche, Yacon, Bellaco, and Lemongrass”.

Below, you’ll see other courses including pork belly, scallops, and a colorful dish made almost entirely of different corns.

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Above: Low Andes Mountains, Elevation: 1800 M.  Menu described it as “Pork, Black Mashwa, Panca Chili Pepper, and Kiwicha”.

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Above: Land of Corn.  Menu described it as “Kculli, Purple, Chuli, Piscorunto”.

Part way through the meal, the Chef stopped by to say hello and see how we were enjoying everything.  Of course, we couldn’t resist asking for a photo.  He’s a young guy, 30ish, and surprisingly soft-spoken and humble for someone so highly lauded.  And no, Mom, he’s not single.

IMG_4827FullSizeRender 6Course 14 brought us to desserts.  The first was very popular among my friends – frozen algae and a refreshing green sorbet.

Below was my favorite of the desserts (the only one with chocolate).

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The meal took three hours, but with good company and the epicurean adventure, it passed quickly.

If you are going to be in Lima, I highly recommend a visit.  It books up fast, but reservations are made easily online.  I made mine several months in advance, and I’d recommend doing the same.  There are great restaurants all over Lima, but this one is truly a stand-out.

 

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Machu Picchu

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You know how, sometimes, you hear so much about something that when you actually see or experience it, there’s no way it can possibly live up to the hype? Well, Machu Picchu isn’t one of those things.  It’s every bit as spectacular as you’d expect it to be.

There are several ways to reach Machu Picchu, and none of them are easy.  The hardest way is a 4 day (3 night) hike on the Inca Trail.  My friend Jill and I opted for the easiest (and shortest) method, which meant a van picked us up from our hotel around 6:30 AM.  That took us to a bus, which took us to another bus, which took us to a train, which took us to a final bus.  And that’s just one way.  We finally arrived around noon, and the conditions were perfect.

Our guide, Jonathan, led us up some stairs, pausing periodically to educate us about Machu Picchu and the Inca as we caught our breath.  It wasn’t a challenging climb, but the altitude made us all get winded more easily than normal.  We learned that the civilization wasn’t actually called the Inca – there was only one Inca at a time (the ruler) and everyone else was Quechua.  Almost nothing is known about the first Incas since they didn’t write their history, but we know a fair amount about the later rulers thanks to the Spanish who chronicled the culture.

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Upon reaching the top of the stairs we were immediately rewarded with this spectacular view.  Our guide was extremely patient while we snapped photos to our hearts content.  I might have snapped a selfie or two (ok, there are like 50 on my phone).

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We learned that you can tell where the highest ranking people lived because the construction of those homes are superior.  The rocks are cut and shaped together perfectly without the need for mortar.  We saw this in the Inca’s dwelling, the temple, and also where the priest lived.  All the homes, even the Inca’s, are very small since they only used it for sleeping.  The other, less holy areas are still beautifully built but the stones are less perfect and there is mortar between them.

They chose the location for Machu Picchu for multiple reasons.  First, the elevation was appealing because it put them close to the gods.  It also provided some protection, since enemies would have to scale the surrounding mountains.  It would be easy to spot them as they did so.  However, it is situated between two major fault lines so it’s prone to earthquakes.  It’s also in an area with heavy rainfall much of the year.

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It’s incredible how smart the Quechua were.  Their architecture and astronomy were particularly impressive.  They utilized the large boulders in the landscape to stabilize the buildings and protect against tremors.  And they build in a system of aqueducts, channels, and fountains to deal with the heavy rains.  As you can see in the picture below, the roofs of each home were built at 65 degrees so that the rain would pour off easily. The terraced areas you see were used for agriculture.  They have several layers of dirt, sand, gravel, and larger rocks underneath to deal with the rain so that floods were nonexistent, even in the heaviest downpours.

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If you’re in touch with South American news, you might know that there are strikes and protests going on throughout Peru right now.  The notoriously corrupt government recently canceled plans to build a new airport in Cusco and the citizens are displeased about it.  On top of that, the teachers are fighting for higher wages.  In case the protests spread, police were sent to Machu Picchu with riot shields and machine guns.  I think they were just as psyched to be there as we were.

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In addition to being pretty darn funny, this picture is also a good example of the first construction style I mentioned with “pillow” shaped rocks that are cut so perfectly they don’t even need mortar.  Compare that with the picture above and you can really appreciate the difference.  However it’s important to keep in mind that all of the 700 people who lived there were considered high society, so there are no areas inside Machu Picchu where the lower castes lived.

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The place is huge; we spent almost three hours there and honestly it felt a bit rushed because we had to make our train.  I could have spent at least another hour or two exploring, petting the alpacas, et cetera.

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Guess I’ll just have to go back!  It’s a little expensive (I paid about $380 USD for admission, all transportation, and the tour guide), and it’s a very long day (about 15.5 hours), but it’s absolutely worth it.  I am still reeling in awe, and I don’t think it’s wearing off any time soon!

 

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Saqsaywaman [Cusco, Peru]

DSC_0032Yesterday I arrived in Cusco and immediately fell in love.  Your plane descends between steep but breathtaking mountains into a small airport, and before you even reach the baggage claim you’re offered free cocoa leaves to help you acclimate to the altitude.  The city, which was the capital of the Inca Empire, is over 11,000 feet above sea level and you definitely feel it when you walk off the plane.  But everywhere you turn they offer you cocoa leaves, tea, and candies to help and except a little lethargy and shortness of breath, none of my friends suffered too much.

Our first night in town we ate at a restaurant called Cicciolina, which is notoriously one of the best.  We tasted the local flavors like cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca.  I can’t say I’ll be ordering them again, but I was excited for the experience to try something local and exotic.  My pasta entree was delicious and after two glasses of wine (at altitude) I was ready to go straight to bed.

DSC_0037This morning we woke up and enjoyed breakfast in the courtyard of our spectacular hotel.  You can expect to see another post on it because I am totally smitten, but first I want to share photos from our morning expedition to Saqsaywaman (yes, it’s said like “sexy woman”).

DSC_0042Saqsaywaman was first created around 1100 by the Killke culture.  Later, in the 13th century, the Incas added to it.  What’s most impressive is that it’s constructed without mortar.  The boulders are carefully cut and pieced together so perfectly that they have withstood thousands of years (and countless earthquakes).

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DSC_0049My favorite part was the slides that were created naturally in the smooth, arched stone.  Sliding down them was incredibly fun!

DSC_0056DSC_0052There’s a big grassy area in between the fortress walls where we met some grazing alpaca.

DSC_0069DSC_0070DSC_0081The back side provides spectacular views of Cusco and the mountains in the background.

DSC_0071DSC_0086If you’re ever in Cusco, it’s well worth a trip.  We took an Uber there, which cost a little under $5 USD.  Considering that it’s perched high above the city (elevation over 12,000 ft), it was well worth the fare.  Expect to pay 70 Soles (about $22 USD) for admission and spend about 2 hours exploring there.  We chose to walk back to town afterwards, which was enjoyable because it was a direct and downhill path.  It’s hands down my favorite thing we’ve done or seen so far in Peru.

Tomorrow I head to Machu Picchu!

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So you need to buy new luggage…

Recently a friend of mine invested in new luggage, and since I travel a lot, she asked me for recommendations.  As someone who takes dozens of trips a year, I’ve gotten my packing and luggage situation pretty stream-lined.  I know some people have circumstances that will require them to do things differently, but I’ve noticed that my other friends who travel a lot tend to have similar habits to mine.  Here’s what works for us, and why.

Rules of Thumb

  • Go for four spinning wheels.  Buying 4-wheeled luggage was a game-changer for me.  It is so much easier to maneuver, I don’t know why people carried suitcases for as long as they did.
  • Carry-on whenever possible.  This is one I learned from my dad, and it’s a must for frequent travelers.  I even carry-on when I go to Europe for a week.  The benefits are huge: you can arrive at the airport later since you don’t have to drop off a bag at the luggage counter; your luggage stays safer (have you seen the way airlines treat suitcases!?); you eliminate the risk of lost luggage; you don’t have to wait for the bag at your destination; and you get extra flexibility in case you want to do something like give up your seat on an over-sold flight.  To me, these benefits greatly outweigh the benefit of having my whole closet with me.  I’ve learned that I don’t wear or use most of that stuff anyway! Plus, everywhere I’ve ever traveled has had stores where I could buy something I desperately needed.
  • Expanding luggage is a plus.  It seems like no matter how nicely I fold things, they always take up more space on the way home.  My suitcase has a zipper that gives my an extra inch or so of space, and I end up using it almost every trip.
  • Pick your color carefully.  My last set of luggage was green and my current set is gray. Both have gotten quite stained – especially in the rare instances where I checked them.  Black luggage can be hard to distinguish from other bags, but at least it ages well.  I think a deep red is also a good choice.
  • Where to shop: I have found great deals on brand name luggage at discount stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross, etc.
  • In addition to my carry-on suitcase, I always have a shoulder bag that goes under the seat in front of me on flights.  Longchamp bags are perfect for this.  They fit a lot, are lightweight, a pocket keeps valuables easy-to-access, and they zip shut so your items don’t go flying if you hit a patch of turbulence. I usually put my toiletries, computer, purse, and in-flight entertainment in this bag.  Having the toiletries and computer handy makes getting through security a breeze.
  • Buy a la carte.  My last set of luggage was a gift and  it came with three pieces (similar).  I used the big one a few times, the carry-on sized one a ton (until it broke), and I never even took the tags off the smallest piece.  When I purchased new luggage, I only bought the pieces I wanted or needed.  Why buy pieces I’ll never use!?

Brands

  • If you don’t travel a ton and you care more about price than quality, you might want to check out the Amazon Basics line.  The pieces are nice-looking and priced affordably, but I don’t know how they’ll hold up over time. I’ve had issues with cheap luggage in the past – especially the telescoping handle.
  • My luggage is Samsonite and I’ve been really happy with it.  The carry-on that I use all the time is at least three years old and I haven’t had any trouble with it yet.  I got a pretty good deal at one of the stores I mentioned above, and it came with a 10 year warranty.  I made sure to save that paperwork – with the amount of use my bags get, I expect to need it someday.
  • If you’re willing to spend a few hundred bucks on top-of-the-line luggage, Tumi is the way to go.

I hope you find this advice useful.  Good luck shopping and happy travels!

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