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Life on the road with Susan Orlean

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Susan Orlean, the New Yorker writer and book author, is on a five-month, North American zigzag to promote The Library Book, her newest bestseller. And in between speaking engagements — while she is idling in hotels or awaiting delayed flights — she is teaching herself to play the ukulele, strumming under the tutelage of YouTube videos and ukulele apps. Her repertoire already includes the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band” and “Ho Hey,” by The Lumineers. “I’m not a great relaxer,” she said over breakfast in a midtown Manhattan hotel on a late November morning, dismantling the impressive heap of pancakes that had been placed in front of her.

The Library Book weaves together the stories of the 1986 arson fire of the Los Angeles Library, the history of libraries and Orlean’s personal connection to these institutions. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Michael Lewis wrote, “Susan Orlean has once again found rich material where no one else has bothered to look for it.” Orlean is also the author of Rin Tin Tin, a biography of the canine movie star, and The Orchid Thief.

Susan Orlean, currently in the midst of a 35-city book tour for The Library Book.
Susan Orlean, currently in the midst of a 35-city book tour for The Library Book.  (Suzanne DeChillo / The New York Times)

As Orlean travels to cities like Seattle and Dallas, she has shared on her Twitter feed (309,000 followers at last count) the highs and lows of months spent on the road. “Exit row with no one in the middle seat. In a past life I must have done something good,” she wrote one day. “Lemme tell you, book tours aren’t for sissies,” she wrote two days before.

Over an unhurried breakfast, Orlean, who, when she is not on the road, lives in Los Angeles with her husband, John Gillespie, and their son, discussed her travel strategies for doing laundry, staying calm during takeoff and the “transformational” foot rest she has discovered. This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

You travel. Do you enjoy it?

I went through a period where I became afraid to fly. I was about to begin my Orchid Thief book tour and I thought, “I have to deal with this.” So I went to a hypnotist. The first time I flew after I had gone through hypnotherapy — as the plane was taking off, which had always been the moment I would be gripping the seat and nearly tearing it off the body of the plane — I turned to my husband and said, “I think I’m going to get a pilot’s license.” And he said to me, “What did that guy do to you?”

What do you bring with you on a fight?

Noise-canceling headphones. And this foot sling I just got, which is transformational. You attach it on your tray table and it becomes a foot rest. I can’t recommend it enough.

How do you pass the time on a flight?

Sometimes I’ll do tasks that are usually so tedious that I would never be able to do it at home. I’ll spend an hour going through my contact list and update it. There is a lot of stuff I do on planes that I don’t do anywhere else. I play this little silly game on my phone called “Bejeweled” and that I have never, ever, ever done on the Earth’s surface. Similarly, I have never eaten a Biscoff cookie except at 35,000 feet.

Checked baggage or carry-on?

My husband taught me that bag checking is the work of the devil.

How do you pack for a long trip using only a carry-on?

I have one outfit that I wear for all my public events, a backup in case anything should happen. Then I pack one pair of jeans and two tops. I hand-wash my lingerie. That’s the only challenge. If you only have one day in a particular city, stuff doesn’t have time to dry.

When you are travelling for leisure, do you like to chill on a beach and explore a city?

I’m always happy to be somewhere beautiful, but I’m always much more interested in a place where there is something cultural to do. It’s the reporter in me. I think I do what I do professionally because it’s just a reflection of the way I am in the world anyway. The way I travel for work is not that different from the way I travel for leisure.

When you are on a book tour, do you ever get to see the places you are visiting?

Yes. I had a few extra hours in Tulsa [Oklahoma] and so I got a Bird Scooter and I scooted around downtown and I discovered to my amazement that Tulsa has a beautiful collection of Art Deco buildings. I never would have imagined it, and it was really one of the highlights of my whole trip.

There was a church there called the Boston Avenue Church. I couldn’t get into it, which drove me crazy, and I’m determined to go back. It’s an absolutely stunning building, Art Deco, and it turns out if has a really interesting history. It had always been attributed to this male architect, and years and years and years later it turned out it was designed by a woman. I thought, “What a great story.”

I feel as if we are going to read about this church in a future issue of the New Yorker.

I know! It really is amazing. How many women architects were there in the 1920s? The story of how did it end up finally being attributed to her, I don’t know. Yet.

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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip

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(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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Travel & Escape

What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled

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(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Travel & Escape

Be safe not sorry when booking travel online

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(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
    • A total price
    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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