Day 2 of Our 3-ish Days in Rome

If you missed it, you should definitely check out Day 1 of Our 3-ish Days in Rome before you read any further.

But assuming you’ve read all about Day 1 and how we ended up in Rome for our summer vacation, and once again, at the risk of sounding like a spoiled baby as I tell you all the things that didn’t go our way, I bring you Day 2 of our 3-ish days in Rome.

The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica

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What we did:

Just like we did with the Colosseum, we booked our tour straight through the Vatican. Also because we learned our lesson on day 1 and knew things were taking significantly longer than seemed necessary, we left the hotel at 7:30am even though our tour didn’t start until 9:30am.

Thankfully we found the Vatican without any issue. In fact, we arrived before they even opened the doors to the public. To our surprise, we were inside and through security more than an hour before the start of our tour. But because there really isn’t much to see or do before you officially enter the museum, we had no choice but to sit around and wait.

Thankfully our tour was significantly better than at the Colosseum, although the group was about the same size and we still had to use headphones to hear our guide. I still wouldn’t give our tour rave reviews, but overall it was worth the cost.

The guide was a 70 year old woman who got in three separate altercations within the course of a 1.5 hour tour. In addition, along with another couple, we got separated from the group. Even though we were right in front of our guide when we walked into the wrong line, she didn’t even notice. We missed 3/4 of the tour through St. Peter’s Basilica as a result.

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Overall, we felt like we didn’t have as much appreciation for the whole Vatican experience as we would have if we were Catholic. A lot of the significance was lost on us. The most exciting moment for Sean was standing in St. Mark’s Square because, “That’s where CNN always shoots.” So that tells you how emotionally invested we were in the whole thing.

fullsizeoutput_213The Sistine Chapel was an odd experience. One minute you’re in the art gallery and the next minute you’re in a stairwell, and then BOOM you’re in the Sistine Chapel with “security guards” (read: “mall cops”) YELLING at everyone to be silent. Maybe it’s all the people or the yelling guards, but it definitely did not feel like a church.

So although our trip to the Vatican was not a spiritual or enlightening experience; we felt like it was a fun and interesting morning.

What I would tell a friend to do:

Just like with the Colosseum, even though it’s a complete zoo, if you’re in Rome you have to see the Vatican!

I would recommend the tour we chose depending on my “friend’s” circumstances. It’s totally possible to wander through on your own, but the experience is significantly enhanced by a guide.

If you really want a human tour guide but you don’t want to spend a ton of money, I would recommend booking through The Vatican. The process was really straightforward and although the tour guide was a bit nutty, the tour was decent. If The Vatican is the thing you’re most excited to see in Rome and you don’t mind spending a little extra money, I would recommend hunting Viator for a well reviewed tour company and booking through them.

If you’re fine with foregoing the human tour guide, purchase your entry ticket online ahead of time so that you don’t have to stand in the mob scene that is the ticket counter line and then use Rick Steves’ audio tour. We can’t say enough good things about his audio tours and bonus – they’re FREE! Looking back, we should have picked this option. Since we arrived when the doors opened, we could have been done with our audio tour before the crowds got really out of control. Instead, we wasted an hour waiting around for our tour to start.

Post Vatican

It was definitely time for some lunch! Since we read that food near the Vatican is 10 times more expensive then food just a few blocks away, we started walking.

Once we found a restaurant that looked good, we sat down, ordered, and pulled out our Lonely Planet map. After starring at it for no less than 30 minutes and still not being able to find our current location and asking our waiter (who couldn’t find our location either), a fellow tourist one table over handed us one of her extra maps.

That single act of kindness changed everything for us. Turns out the source of our constant frustration and confusion was NOT our inept ability to navigate. We simply had a crappy map!

Armed with our new map, we found our way back to the hotel without too much hassle, rested a little, and then set off for the Roman Forum.

The Roman Forum

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What we did:

The original plan was to see the Roman Forum the same day as the Colosseum because they are right next to each other. However, as you remember from my previous post, after our Colosseum tour, I couldn’t imagine walking one more step, so we had to postpone our trip to the Roman Forum, hoping we had time to circle back on Day 2. Luckily, we did!

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Before we left the United States, we had already planned to use Rick Steves’ audio tour for our trip to the Roman Forum. Even though I’ve already beefed up Rick Steves’ audio guides multiple times in my posts, the Roman Forum is where we used one of Rick’s audio guides for the first time. We immediately fell in love with it!

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A lot of tourists (and tour guides) complain about the Roman Forum. I will agree, it’s SUPER hot and there is ZERO shade. However, we found it to be one of our favorite things from our time in Rome. We were able to go at our own pace, and the audio guide made it really interesting. We learned a ton. Did you know the grave of Julius Caesar is there? Way cool!

What I would tell a friend to do:

Definitely take the time to see the Roman Forum; and definitely use Rick Steves’ audio tour. Oh, and DEFINITELY take plenty of water. The heat is brutal, but the experience is worth it.

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Food Tour

What we did:

This tour came on recommendation of a friend’s parents. I’m so glad we decided to splurge and take this tour! It was my absolute favorite thing in Rome! First of all, the tour group was small – less than 20 people. There was no need for headsets, and it felt more like a group of friends eating their way through Rome then a formal tour. We loved getting to know the other tourists in our group, who ranged in age from 20’s to 60’s and were from varying home countries.

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We learned that in Europe, becoming a tour guide requires a college degree and months of additional training. It’s a career, not a job. Our guide not only loved food, but was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the geographic and structural history of Rome. This tour was so much more than pasta and gelato and after a few less than impressive tours, I was so appreciative of this experience!

fullsizeoutput_236For me, the most touching moment of the whole trip happened on this tour. We were standing in the Jewish Ghetto eating something fried and amazing while our guide told us to keep our eyes peeled for “stumbling stones.” You can read about them here. But they are basically cobble stone sized memorials to individuals who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The “stones” were created by a German artist and placed outside the homes of victims. Apparently you can find them all over Europe.

Sure enough, just one block away, there was a set of three “stones” just near the front door of an apartment that is still in use today.

What I would tell a friend to do:

TAKE THIS TOUR!

Day 2 Conclusions

Travel Lessons from Day 2:

  • The threat of being late stresses me out and waiting around upsets me even more. This is more of a personal realization then a travel tip for the general public. However, this realization will definitely serve the McGrath family well in the future. Because of these personality traits, I’m going to approach organized tours differently in the future. Unless the tour guide picks us up at the hotel, or I know exactly where the meeting place is located, we should probably opt for the self-guided route or audio tour when possible. It seems that when we can operate on our own timeline, we enjoy the experience so much more!
  • It’s not our fault we yell! Our experience with our verbally aggressive Vatican tour guide made us both stop and think that maybe all of my family’s yelling really is genetic! It’s a proven fact, Italian’s yell about EVERYTHING!
  • If your map is causing frustration, get a new map! A new map made all the difference in the world. Turns out, our Lonely Planet map totally sucked. Find a kiosk and get a map specifically designed for tourists. It will most like include everything you need to know.
  • Eating and meeting are the best parts of a vacation! Although the rising trend in vacation planning seems to be renting a house from Airbnb and making your own meals to save money; for us eating at local restaurants and meeting new people is always the highlight of our trip. Although it may not be the cheapest option, choosing our lodging and planning meals that allow for unique “eating” and “meeting” experiences will make for a much more enjoyable and memorable vacation.
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Day 1 of Our 3-ish Days in Rome

I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve been asked why two months after we returned from our trip to the Mediterranean, I still haven’t blogged about it.

The answer is pretty simple: We had a WONDERFUL time, but a lot of things didn’t go our way and even though I put more time into planning this vacation then I did our wedding, there is a lot I would have done differently.

I’ve been hesitant to write anything because I don’t want to sound like a spoiled baby. The Mr. and I feel so blessed! We experienced things we had only dreamed of – things that many of our friends and family members have never and may never see with their own eyes. We actually visited places Sean will teach on later in the year. That is amazing!

But the thing is, many moments were not kittens and rainbows, and it’s hard to talk about our trip without that coming through. 

So…Why Rome…in July?

Even though my porcelain skin would make you think otherwise, I am a legitimate, Italian American. In High School I even qualified for a Sons of Italy scholarship. My great-grandparents immigrated from Italy through Ellis Island, and to my knowledge, no one from my family had been back to Italy since.

My brothers and I have always been intrigued by this mysterious part of our heritage and for as long as I can remember, we’ve wanted to go to Italy. We dreamed of going back to Italy together, but I got tired of waiting for everyone to get their act together and make the trip a priority.

Last January I found a pretty good deal on a Mediterranean cruise in the middle of July (perfect for Sean’s teaching schedule) that peaked our interest. As an extra bonus, the cruise started and ended in Rome! Naturally we added a few days to our vacation so that we could site see before we boarded the boat.

So without further adieu (and at the risk of sounding like a spoiled baby), I bring you Day 1 of our 3-ish days in Rome.

Arrival

What we did:

Like many US flights to Europe, we flew overnight and arrived in Rome around 9:30am. On the recommendation of the Lonely Planet Travel Guide as well as Rick Steves, we used the AirPort Shuttle, which ended up being a complete disaster! Our hotel was approximately 30 minutes from the airport. I estimated we would be at our hotel by 11:00 at the latest, but thanks to AirPort Shuttle we didn’t arrive until 12:30….and we had a Colosseum tour at 1:30.

When we arrived at our hotel, I hadn’t eaten since the 6am, American Airlines economy-class breakfast. I was past the point of hangry and well into sick, and the first thing I did after check-in was puke in the bathroom of our hotel room. Then I washed my face, changed clothes, and we were off to find the Colosseum.

What I would tell a friend to do:

Spend the extra money, risk being ripped off and get a cab upon arrival.

The Colosseum

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What we did:

The Colosseum was supposed to be a 15 minute walk from our hotel, but streets in Rome aren’t marked that well, the route wasn’t very straightforward, I had just puked my guts up, and I was in full panic mode, so….it took us a bit longer than 15 minutes. But by some form of a miracle we made it to the Colosseum a few minutes before our tour was scheduled to begin.

If you’ve done any research whatsoever, you know that buying your tickets in advance allows you to “skip the line.” In reality, it works more like a Disney Fast Pass. You don’t have to stand in the SUPER long line, but you do have to stand in the “skip the line” line, which is still a line, and although it moves quickly, it’s not exactly short.

Then because we booked the (significantly cheaper) official Colosseum tour instead of one through a private company, once we made it through the “skip the line” line, we had to stand in a second line for a ticket counter where they exchange your tour confirmation for a sticker. We skipped this step. I’m actually still not sure how we were supposed to know this step existed. Instead, we showed up at our tour meeting point sticker-less.

Even though we had our confirmation print-outs, our guide refused to let us join the tour until we had the sticker, but because we were already inside the Colosseum there was no way for us to exit, join the line at the ticket counter, and come back in. So with the half-hearted help of another tour guide and after missing the first 10 minutes of our tour, we finally had our sticker and could join the group.

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There were about 50 people in our tour group and we were given headsets so we could hear our guide. Her English wasn’t that great and the tour didn’t cover very many sections of the Colosseum. Sean and I both agreed – our tour was a complete waste!

In short, we simply weren’t prepared for how chaotic a visit to the Colosseum can be! Every inch of space is packed with hot, sweaty and frustrated people all trying their darnedest to enjoy the moment and not pass out  – a lot like Disney World.

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What I would tell a friend to do:

Even though it’s a complete zoo, if you’re in Rome you have to see the Colosseum! Be sure to eat before you go, bring lots of water (or at least a bottle that can be refilled at the fountains inside), be prepared to be blessed with an opportunity (or 10) to practice patience, and give yourself plenty of time.

Even though I wouldn’t recommend the tour we chose, I REALLY wouldn’t recommend walking through the Colosseum without some kind of tour. You simply won’t get anything out of it and you will have no earthly clue what you’re looking at.

If you feel like you just HAVE to have a human tour guide, strike up a deal with one of the MANY private tour guides standing out front and negotiate your way to a good deal on a private tour.

If you’re fine with foregoing the human tour guide, purchase your entry ticket online ahead of time so that you can get in the “skip the line” line and then use Rick Steves’ audio tour. We can’t say enough good things about his audio tours and bonus – they’re FREE! I wish we would have done this!

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Post Colosseum

After we left the Colosseum, food was my #1 priority.

RECAP: It was approximately 3:00 and I had not eaten since the American Airlines economy-class breakfast served around 6am. That’s 9 hours folks!!!

After “lunch” I knew I had hit my limit and I simply could not go on. So we went back to the hotel and we both crashed.

Around 7pm I woke up feeling like a new person, ready to take on the city again. After a good 30 minutes of coaxing Sean out of bed, we set off to see the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

The Trevi Fountain

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What we did:

Armed with our map from the Lonely Planet Guide Book, we set off in search of the Trevi Fountain. When we exited the Metro we spotted another couple with the same destination in mind, but they were using their smart phone to find it. We decided to join forces with them, but after 45 minutes of wandering with no fountain in sight, we set off on our own.

Around 9pm we FINALLY found the Trevi Fountain! To our complete horror, the entire area surrounding the fountain was PACKED with people. I wish I had taken a photo of the crowds. I found this one online which is a pretty accurate representation of our experience, except it was 9pm and not the middle of the day.

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I heard later on there was some kind of photo shoot that drew the large crowds, but blocks away streets were equally as packed so I’m not sure the photo shoot had all that much do to with the crowds.

After 30 minutes of feeling like we were at a concert pushing through gobs of people to get to the stage, we snapped a few photos, gave up on the idea of getting close enough to toss a coin in the fountain, and set off for the Spanish Steps.

img_1578What I would tell a friend to do:

Don’t be scared to ask strangers for directions and if it feels like you’re going the wrong way, reassess sooner rather than later. Also, mentally prepare yourself for large crowds at major sites no matter the time of day or night.

The Spanish Steps

What we did:

Even though it should have only been a 10 minute walk, it took us significantly longer to find the Spanish Steps. We blamed it on the fact that navigation has become a lost skill. We later found out we had a terrible map.

When we finally found the Spanish Steps, we discovered we could not climb them or even get that close to them. I thought maybe they closed them down at night, but after some further research I found out they’re actually closed 24/7 for renovation. So we stared at the steps from behind this see-through, makeshift wall and then headed back to the hotel.

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Sean was border-line outraged that we walked all that way to see some steps. I kept trying to tell him they are a big deal, but my reasoning fell flat. I’m still not really sure why the Spanish Steps are a big deal. I should probably look into that. Either way, we can now say we saw the Spanish Steps.

What I would tell a friend to do:

Find out how the renovation project is going. A few weeks after we returned home I read that during the day you can take an alternate route to the top of the stairs. So if that’s the case, then make sure you go during the day. Definitely make an effort to go so that you can say you saw them, but don’t expect much from the whole Spanish Steps experience.

Day 1 Consclusions

Travel Lessons from Day 1:

  • The transportation process from the airport to the hotel sets the tone for the trip. Spend the money to make it as seamless and stress free as possible. Vacations are supposed to be fun. Spend the money to make sure it starts on a good note.
  • Avoid pre-scheduled tours on day 1 of your vacation. If your schedule absolutely forces you to book an organized tour on day 1, schedule it for late in the day. This ensures you have PLENTY of time to take a nap, shower, eat, find an ATM and get acquainted with your surroundings before you absolutely have to be somewhere. Even if we had picked the 3:30 Colosseum tour instead of the 1:30 Colosseum tour, it would have made a world of difference.
  • Ask for directions as soon as you feel lost. There is no reason to wander for 45+ minutes when the streets are packed with people who are happy to help you out.
  • If you’re in a touristy area, expect crowds ALL THE TIME! No matter what time it is, just expect you will have to face the crowds. If you accept it ahead of time, it’s easier to handle.
  • If your map is causing frustration, get a new map! A little bit of a spoiler here, but on Day 2 of our 3-ish days in Rome, a stranger gave us a new map and it made all the difference in the world. Turns out, our Lonely Planet map totally sucked. Find a kiosk and get a map specifically designed for tourists. It will most like include everything you need to know.
  • Give yourself PLENTY of time for EVERYTHING! On Day 1 everything took 3 times longer than it should have – no exaggeration! As we spent more time in the city it got better, but if you try to pack your first day with sites and activities, you will probably end up very frustrated and disappointed.

Vacation Purchases I’m Most Excited to Use – PART 2

If you haven’t checked out Part 1 of the Vacation Purchases I’m Most Excited to Use series, you definitely should!

We’re three months away from setting sail on our Mediterranean cruise and before we go, there are a few more purchases I want to share with you.

7PC Anpress Packing Cube Set

61o2wgad2pL._SL1000_Purchased From: Amazon

Price: $20.93

A friend told us about packing cubes. I had no idea these were a thing, but apparently they are all the rage in the world of travel. Not only do they keep your clothes organized and wrinkle free, but they somehow magically allow you to pack WAY more in less space! Because I wasn’t ready to pay $40 for a set of top of the line plastic bags, I bought this off-brand set instead. When they arrived I immediately used them to pack all the clothes I intended to bring on our trip. Sure enough, EVERYTHING fit in these cubes and consequently, everything then fit nicely into the new-to-me rolling duffle I told you about in part 1 of this post. A few weeks later I bought a set of Eagle Creek packing cubes for Sean for only $16.95!

 

Samsonite Eye Mask and Earplug Set

1439165Purchased From: Kohls

Price: $6.99

In part 1 of this post you heard me talk about the importance of getting some sleep on our overnight flight. My new eye mask and earplugs were yet another purchase made to help with that. The eye mask has already served me well on several nights when Sean is trolling Facebook on his iPad while I’m trying to sleep.

 

Adidas Neo Lite Racer Slip On Shoes

350-100154195-847__1Purchased From: Costco

Price: $24.99

This purchase has #girlproblems written all over it. Finding fashionable shoes that you can actually walk in all day is like finding the holy grail. I’m not saying I found the holy grail when I found these shoes, but I got close enough to stop looking. Plus, they were less than $25 at Costco! I already wore these on a day trip to the zoo followed by several hours of mattress shopping and both the shoes and my feet held up really nicely!

 

Eagle Creek Liquid Bag

downloadPurchased From: Sierra Trading Post

Price: $3.50

Since I already told you about my #girlproblems, I should definitely share my #firstworldproblems. I HATE having to remember to buy quart size bags every time we travel. Plus if the bag breaks or one of you liquids explodes, let’s hope you remembered to bring an extra bag for the flight home. I told you #firstworldproblems. A few years back I bought a reusable plastic travel bag at Walmart but the slider at the top was so crappy that it broke in half after one flight…not even a whole trip, just one flight. When I saw these for less than $4 at Sierra Trading Post I immediately put two in my cart.

 

20 UV-Tanning Sessions

UntitledPurchased From: Groupon

Price: $36

Even though I’m half Italian, I did not get what I call “the good skin.” If you want to see what “the good skin” looks like, look up Joshua LaSelva on Facebook. I’ve found that a few weeks of tanning (along with really good sunscreen) goes a long way in preventing a miserable sunburn. Plus, it’s nice to not look  like a ghost in our vacation photos.

So there you have it. These are the purchases I’ve made thus far. Right now there isn’t a plan for a part 3 of this series, but there is still a lot of shopping time left before our trip, so stay tuned.

Vacation Purchases I’m Most Excited to Use

In our first month of marriage Sean and I made a big commitment: to take an International vacation every year before we have a baby. You may have heard about last year’s trip to Costa Rica in my 30 by 30 Review.

This year we are planning an even bigger trip! We’re going on a Mediterranean cruise!!! Even though our ship sets sail in July, we booked the cruise in January. So…planning started 6 months before we were scheduled to board the ship.

I just realized I’m investing more months of planning into this trip then I did our wedding. Maybe that little factoid should stay between us.

Unfortunately, planning always tends to lead to purchasing.

Here are the purchases I’ve made thus far that I’m most excited about!

 

Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports Travel Guide

11817100Purchased From: Amazon

Price: $10.78, but FREE for us because we had an Amazon gift card!

After booking the cruise, this was my very first purchase! When it comes to traveling through Europe, Rick Steves knows it all. I love this travel guide because it was created specifically for cruise travelers (like us) who only have a few hours in each city. When you have a mission of seeing Athens in a matter of hours, you don’t have time to mess around. At this point I think I’ve read the sections on the ports we will visit at least twice. I’m also looking froward to downloading some of Rick’s free podcasts which we can use as our own private audio tour.

 

Patagonia Transport Tote

49460_155Purchased From: eBags

Price: $64.99

I have two go-to totes that I use for just about everything. Although they have served me well through the years, neither seemed suited for this trip. First of all, neither zip shut. Second, neither were actually designed for travel, so they don’t have features like internal compartments to keep things organized or an open pocket on the back that can slide over the handle of rolling luggage. After searching far and wide both online and in stores I realized that a tote actually designed for travel was going to cost a pretty penny – most likely around $100!!! I was so excited when I found this tote, and even more excited when it went on sale! It was exactly what I was looking for!

 

New-to-Me, Victoria Secret Rolling Duffle Bag

sas-tote10Purchased From: Varagesale

Price: $35

I did some online research about best packing methods for a trip similar to ours and discovered that taking the giant rolling luggage we typically use would be a nightmare. Instead, we need carry-on size luggage that can be easily hauled through train stations, down cobble stone streets and up narrow flights of stairs. I was originally looking at this Eagle Creek luggage but I wasn’t too excited to spend $100 on a packing experiment. When a rolling duffle came up on Varagesale (a safer, Craigslist-like website) for $35, I bought it. Sean thinks it looks like a middle schooler’s luggage….and I’m starting to agree with him, but I couldn’t beat the price tag!

 

OEDER Home Collection Memory Foam Neck Pillow

Purchased From: TJ Maxx

Price: $9.99

I typically fly 3-5 times per year. It’s been this way for the past decade. With the exception of my trip to Africa a few years ago, the flights I board are usually around 2-4 hours long so I’ve never felt the need to purchase a neck pillow. On this trip we’ll be flying overnight from PA to Rome and we’ll hit the ground running when we land so it seemed like the right time to make the investment. After researching the latest and greatest, I ended up finding this neck pillow at TJ Maxx for 1/3 of the price of others I had considered. Plus it was nice to actually try it out and compare it to other neck pillows in the store. I learned a valuable lesson. Not all memory foam is created equal.

 

Cutout-Trim Sunhat

x354-q80Purchased From: Forever21

Price: $14.90

Over the last few weeks I’ve read through a TON of travel bloggers’ packing lists. All of them include one item I had never considered – a sunhat. It may (or may not) surprise you that Floridians do not rock the sunhat very often (if ever). We usually reserve that fashion statement for tourists. It also may (or may not) surprise you that these sunhats are EXPENSIVE – we’re talking $50! Although blogger after blogger swears that this crazy hat makes a significant difference in keeping you cool, I’m not sure I will have the confidence to actually wear it in public. When I found this sunhat on Forever21’s website for under $15 I had to give this functional fashion statement a try. Here’s to hoping I don’t look completely ridiculous!

Vapur Anti-Bottle

81Y0Wq74+AL._SL1500_Purchased From: Sierra Trading Post

Price: $4.95

While walking the aisles of Sierra Trading Post one weekend I stumbled on this water bottle. Although something like this never seemed to be of much use in normal, day-to-day life, it seems absolutely perfect for travel! It folds up to be super small when not in use and it weighs almost nothing. This purchase may be a giant failure, but for less than $5 I had to give it a try.

 

Guess What? There’s MORE! Stay tuned for Vacation Purchases I’m Most Excited to Use PART 2!

What do you think of my purchases so far? Do you use any of these items when you travel?