My Adventures in France 2011 – Part 2 – Trip Planning II

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This is part 2 in my series of blog posts about my trip to France.

Now that I got my travel arrangements made, I needed to do some more planning. Going to Bordeaux during harvest can be an exercise in frustration to say the least. First you need to pare down what Chateau you want to visit from a list of over 8,000. While I didn’t just look at the entire list, I did do some research first.

Of course, I sent requests to all of the 1st Growth Chateaux from the 1855 Classification. And I got 5 very nice rejection letters. All of them mentioned not having time during harvest and a few were doing construction (which I did see first-hand when I drove by). I continued to use the 1855 Classification as my guide. I also looked at the Grand Cru Classes of Saint Emilion and also targeted the top Chateau in Pomerol, which doesn’t have a classification system. I continued to get rejections letters; actually e-mails. Not to be discouraged, I continued to send e-mails and faxes to various Chateaux. Even while getting polite “No” replies, I was starting to get some “Yes” replies.

One thing to remember here, is planning this out months in advance. Even without harvest, I needed to be able to plan which day I was going to be in what part of Bordeaux. It’s like staying in San Antonio and traveling to Fredericksburg, Austin, Seguin, and well, there really aren’t too many larger towns south of San Antonio but I’ll use Pearsall since I know someone from there. So basically I’m talking hundreds of square miles.

Once I started getting general “Yes” replies I began getting specific as to dates and times. With a couple Chateaux already scheduled the rest would start falling in line. My goal was 2 in a day; 3 if I could do it. Have a morning appointment, have a leisurely lunch, then have an afternoon appointment. I accomplished that goal.

During the course of scheduling these Chateaux, I knew there were 2 I HAD to see. One was Chateau Doisy-Vedrines in Barsac, and the other was Chateau Petit Puch in Entre du Mers. I’ll talk about the why during those posts, but suffice to say they had certain special meanings for me.

So I mentioned faxing these Chateaux. I didn’t just use the fax machine at the house to dial long distance. I found a service that will fax a document for you. It was very reasonable. It’s called Pam Fax. It’s basically the only good choice out there. Multi-platform for its software. 3 month trial. Very easy to use. You can even get a return fax number assigned to your account it you want.

So, you may ask, “Mark, it’s 2011 don’t these Chateaux have e-mail? Who uses fax machines anymore?” Well, a lot of business still fax. When you visit these Chateaux’s websites (if they have one) many times they only have an address (more on that in another post), phone number, and fax number. No contact e-mail. So the only way to contact them initially is a phone call or fax. Now once I did fax I would get a reply via e-mail. So that made further communication easier. My guess is that since some of these places have very limited resources, they want to only deal with people that are truly interested in contacting them.

Once I had my Chateaux lined up I needed to figure a few more things out. What was I going to need for traveling. I sat down and really started thinking what exactly I needed to bring with me. Most of that was electronics, but also clothing, camera accessories, luggage, how I’m going to transport wine back with me, etc.

First let’s talk about electronics. Besides needing an adapter, what else would I need? Power strip? Do my electronics handle 220v on their own? For the most part, modern electronics can handle both American and European voltages. However, first check each piece of electronics. Some of then will say 110~220v on the unit itself. If not, check the manual; you did keep it right? Can’t find the manual, then Google it. Luckily all of my electronics were good to go. What about an adapter?

This is where I started getting confused. You see, I wasn’t sure about the whole “can my electronics handle 220v” thing yet. I was looking for an adapter that also converted to 110v. Once I realized that all my electronics were able to handle 220v, I was fine. I went to where I’m comfortable shopping, Amazon, for these things. No one product is necessarily better than the other, but I went with the Belkin F8E449 Universal AC Travel Adapter. First thing to realize is that this won’t convert power. So if your piece of electronics won’t handle European voltages, you need to look for one that will convert power to 110v. Otherwise, you’ll fry your equipment. So getting that is all well and good, but I have multiple things to plug in. I have power strips laying around the house, but they’re a bit bulky. I found this travel power strip that perfectly fit the bill. Outlets To Go Power Strip with USB – Black. 3 outlets, a USB plug, and the cord is compact. Combined with the adapter plug it does what I need.

For USB expansion I had bought this little gizmo a couple months before making all the travel plans knowing I’d need something like it. I actually use it on my desktop computer too so it is more than just a travel piece. Belkin USB 2.0 4-Port Ultra-Mini Hub (F5U407)

What else do I need? A passport wallet might be nice. Since basically you need your passport to go anywhere, I wanted some way to conveniently carry it. Instead of by itself I opted for a wallet. Again, there are tons of options here. The one thing I wanted above all else is RFID protection. Call it the paranoid android in me, but I really don’t need some random dude stealing my info. I decided on this product – RFID Blocking Executive Organizer Passport Case. While it’s a bit of overkill on size, it works. I ALWAYS put it in a front pocket as it is pretty big and easily could be lifted out of my back pocket. Since I didn’t know exactly how much room I needed, I made sure I had enough. There are a couple smaller ones about $10 cheaper that should be fine.

Next I need to figure out how much wine I can bring back. This is tricky as each state has different regulations. In Texas you can bring back 1 gallon of distilled spirits, 3 gallons (15 750ml bottles) of wine, AND 24 12-ounce bottles of beer in a 30-day period. Your state may have different regulations. Now here’s one thing that can be a bit confusing as far as the TTB (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) and Customs. There is a 3% duty rate. According to the TTB you can bring back 1L of alcohol duty free as long as it’s under a certain value. TTB says that you pay the duty upon entry. TABC also says there’s a cost to bring in alcohol (even from another state).

NO ONE asked me to pay anything. I didn’t hide what I brought in. I declared the exact amount and had the receipts ready. And I was ready to pay. The Customs officer asked me about my declaration and I told him 15 750ml bottles of wine with a smile. He smiled back knowing I knew that was 2.97 or so gallons of wine. And that was it. I didn’t even think about paying it till now. Guess I should call someone, eh? Here are the links to TTB and Customs:

TTB – Various State ABC agencies – You’ll need to search them to find the limits. For TABC I just entered “how much alcohol can I bring back.”

U.S. Customs – This is their general info page for reentry to the country.

So you figure out how much your state allows you to bring back, how do you get it back? Well this is where the internet really failed me for a long time, or I was just too stupid. I had talked with a friend of mine about the trip and his wife had something that I could put in my luggage to help with packing the wine. We never got to meet before my trip. As I was getting closer and closer to leaving I kept searching for something to protect the bottles. I kept getting a bunch of cardboard stuff. Boxes, or packaging I could use. None of it was really what I needed. It was more for shipping to someone. Somewhere along the line I changed up how I was searching and I came up with what is called the Wine Skin Leak Proof Traveler. I bought it at The Container Store (did store pickup). You can also get it at Amazon (from my storefront of course 😉 ) – Wine Skin Leak Proof Traveler (Set of 2). I’ve also found this product that I may use in the future along with the Wine Skins when I need more than 12 bottles – Bellino Bottle Limo. After seeing wine reps with special luggage at a tasting I went to right after the trip I figured out there had to be something I could buy. This would have made things soooo much easier.

Now I needed to upgrade my digital camera. The one I’ve had for years is about as good as my iPhone 3Gs. What’s really cool about it is it’s super compact. But it lacks some features that I felt I was going to need like optical zoom. I had been looking at a couple of different cameras the past couple years and was pretty much set on the Canon S90 or S95. Lots of features. But the zoom was lacking. I found the Canon PowerShot SX230HS 12.1 MP Digital Camera with HS SYSTEM and DIGIC 4 Image Processor (Black) and decided it was the camera. 14X optical zoom? And cheaper than the S95? Yes, please. I also got a couple of accessories. The Lenmar DLC5L Lithium-ion Digital Camera/Camcorder Battery Equivalent to the Canon NB-5L Battery for a backup battery, and the Transcend 16 GB SDHC Class 10 Flash Memory Card TS16GSDHC10E for storage. I also got a case at Best Buy called the Lowepro – Tahoe 30 Digital Camera Bag – Black – No Amazon link for this. At first I thought it was going to be too big, but it was just right. Room for the camera and the extra battery.

Being the privacy advocate that I am (yes, I know it’s ironic being as public as I am), I didn’t want others in the hotels or other wi-fi hot spots snooping in on me. While making sure you use https:// as much as possible, there are still times where your traffic can be snooped. So I made sure I set up my VPN account. I’ve got a couple. One for my iOS devices – VPN Express and Ace VPN for my laptop. For my laptop I also installed Tunnelblick. This allows Ace VPN to use Open VPN so that Ace VPN can connect. I won’t go through all the technical stuff, but a VPN basically creates an encrypted tunnel from your computer/device to the site you are connecting to. This tunnel is impenetrable. It’s best to set this up BEFORE you go. One caveat is that it is possible that the wifi hotspot will have VPN tunneling disabled. If so, well, just make sure you are using secure connections when possible.

Speaking of wifi, you’re gonna want it when you want it. While AT&T has international plans with data, I was concerned at how much bandwidth I was going to use. AT&T has for $200/mth an 800MB plan. Well, if I was going to upload just 1 video using the cell connection I would use around 600MB of that. Of course that would require me to do 1 of 2 things. Either change my plan to allow tethering and then imposing a cap on my data usage here in the states (I’m currently grandfathered into the old unlimited plan – 1 reason why I didn’t jump on the iPhone 4S), or jailbreak and unlock my iPhone so I could use a SIM Card from a French cell company. I explored Option 2. I did a jailbreak and unlock and discovered that I didn’t like it as much as I did pre-App Store. It was a pain. Option 1 was a thought – for a minute.

So then what? Just have wifi when there were free ones around? In Paris and at my hotel in Bordeaux that would probably be OK. But what about using Google Maps while driving, or updating Twitter or doing a Foursquare checkin at a Chateaux? Probably not likely. So I did more internet searching and found these guys – XCom. They pretty much have simplified going to a foreign country and having MiFi (a small box that connects to a cellular network and becomes a wifi hotspot). For about the same price as AT&T was going to charge me, I could have a MiFi running at 3G speeds and connect my iPhone, iPad, and Laptop with UNLIMITED Data. Yeah, I was sold.

Next. Weather. Growing up in San Antonio and moving back here a few years ago has spoiled me with not needing to really check the weather too much. It’s either hot, or really hot. Maybe some rain. Going to Bordeaux in September which is a higher latitude than San Antonio means it might get cooler. No problem. I just brought my favorite hoodie. It’s literally good down to about 40 degrees with wind. Other clothing I brought was jeans, polo shirts, t-shirts, and a couple nicer pants/shirts for Paris at night. I overpacked a bit to allow for more than one outfit per day but all of it fit in my normal luggage which could almost be a carry-on. I also needed luggage to cart all my other crap. I have a smaller piece from the same set that I will usually use for shoes. In this case I brought 3 pairs. Boots that I tend to wear all the time, casual boat shoes (more for the plane trip), and dress shoes. I also brought a much larger suitcase. This is because I needed more room for wine.

On the way there I put the small suitcase in the large one so I only have 2 checked bags. I also used my laptop backpack for just about all of my electronics. The large suitcase allowed me to bring my large tripod. I had also bought 2 flexible tripods (Dynex™ – Flexible Tripod) so that if I was going to use a table top or I didn’t feel like going out to the car to get the big tripod I could use that. Just an FYI, the comments on the Best Buy website have a few negative reviews, but I didn’t have any issues at all with them.

iPhone apps. I was about to wrap this up until I remembered a few other things. OK, so I got a few apps from the App Store. First and foremost, get the Metro Paris app. It’s great to have a mobile map and a way to figure out how to get there from here. You can add in the Bus routes too. I did, but never used them. Europcar – I really didn’t use it, but I got it since that’s who I used. I also downloaded the Michelin Red Book. This is a great guide to better restaurants. Again I didn’t use it a whole hell of a lot, but it’s nice to have. I also downloaded the Michelin Traffic app. Good to have since it’s set up for Europe already instead of having to use Google Maps. Rail Europe is another one to get. Again you may use it once, but it’s good to have if you need to look up stuff and don’t have access to a laptop or computer. The U.S State Department also has an app. I bookmarked their mobile website but have now downloaded the app. I never needed it, but I had it just in case. I also made sure I had the phone numbers for the U.S. Embassies in Paris and Bordeaux in my phone just in case. And since I had MobileMe (now iCloud) I had the info on my laptop and iPad.

Ok, that’s really going to wrap this up for now. I did a lot of prep to make this trip go as smooth as possible. As we all know nothing ever goes exactly as planned. So it always good to have Plan B, C, D, etc. As we will see in some future posts, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Especially Day 1. But the more you plan, prepare, and research BEFORE the trip, the easier it is to make the trip. While I do a lot of things without planning, this was one time I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance if I could help it.

Until the next time…..

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