“In China, you don’t have control over the temperature on your thermostat; the government does. That explains why we kept adjusting our temperature dial and nothing ever happened,” Connie Beach tells me. She traveled with her husband this spring to Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.
“The government sets mandated temperature settings,” she explains. “They send out letters seasonally saying things like: for the months of March through May, your heat will be set at 70 degrees from 6:00 until 20:59. It will switch to 67 degrees from 21:00 until 5:59 in the morning. Later in the year, they send out another letter when settings are adjusted for the season.”
Beach has been a travel agent for over 29 years and has visited over 34 countries including Japan, Turks and Caicos, and Luxembourg. Her first and favorite country to visit is Switzerland, to which she’s been 18 times. This year, she’s seen China, Jamaica, and Yellowstone National Park with her family.
I can tell Beach loves her job. The moment I walk into her office, she bursts into excited trip planning mode. And she can get clients just about anywhere. Beach retired from being a school principal twenty-nine years ago. She describes her travel agent job as what she felt “called to do” in life.
You’ve planned thousands of trips. What is one of the most memorable you’ve ever planned?
Well, in terms of circumstance, I would have to say planning a sightseeing trip for a woman who had only a few months left of eyesight was among the most memorable. Due to a cataract condition, this woman had limited time left before she went blind. So her friend called me up and asked me to plan the most picturesque European trip possible. That was great! I planned a trip for them to see the Roman remains in Assisi, which are just breathtaking. They then went to Lucerne, Switzerland to see buildings plastered with murals and covered bridges. Finally, they ended up in Interlaken, a tiny mountain town above lake villages where the specialty is fondue.
This week, I have a group of self-proclaimed ‘geriatrics,’ about twelve of them, who want to go to Namibia. How the heck they decided on Namibia is beyond me, but they travel a lot. I also have a family of four, two parents and two young boys, who I’m helping plan a trip to the rainforests of Belize. They weren’t the club-med type. They wanted something a little more adventurous.
Where would you go if you only had months of eyesight left?
That’s a great question — New Zealand! Travelers come back from that place and are consistently blown away by its beauty. Not many mixed reviews on that one. Everyone I’ve talked to who has been there seems to agree.
Is there an ideal age to travel? Should one travel when young or wait till they’re older, retired, and have a bit of money?
Any age is good, but there are lots of benefits to getting exposed to travel while you’re young. Traveling young teaches you to be adaptable. It gives you confidence to navigate the world no matter what age you are or where you want to go.
I got both of my boys traveling at a young age, and it kept them from becoming hothouse flowers.
What exactly is a “hothouse flower?”
Well, uhh… you know…
You mean people who are finicky and don’t feel comfortable unless things are plush and luxurious?
Right. Exactly. It kept my boys from becoming too particular.
Got it. I’ve smelt some of those flowers. Is it good to travel solo or with people?
I always like to travel with one or two others. This allows for shared adventure, and it helps you navigate your way around. I’ve done a lot of solo travel, too, though. Solo travel can be lonelier at times, but it allows you to get out and meet more foreigners than if you were with friends. When you’re alone you definitely get more of a full-immersion experience. You’re forced to communicate with people you might not otherwise talk to and you need to ask for directions on your own. Stuff like that.
Basically you’re saying you can learn a lot more when you’re on a trip on your own.
That’s exactly right.
When traveling with people, what’s the perfect number to travel with?
One or two people who you know you’re compatible with is good. More than that becomes too complicated. More people take longer to decide where to go, and it’s harder to agree on things. I’ve found that too large of a group can take away the fun of traveling because you spend so much time trying to accommodate everybody.
Do you know of families who manage to go on extended adventures?
Well, not many. Families are limited by cost. It’s expensive and also hard to get around with children.
I do know of one family with two kids that decided to live on a sailboat for four years, and they traveled all over. But, mostly, traveling with a family is limited by time constraints.
In your mind, what’s the difference between an adventure and a vacation? Is there a difference?
Oh, yes! The best way to have an adventure is to travel close to the ground.
What does that mean to travel “close to the ground?”
Don’t spend too much money on places to stay or eat. Pick one or two nice places to sleep or dine if you’d like, but make an intention to interact with the local people. It doesn’t matter where travelers go or what type of travel they prefer, the number one thing they talk about when they get back are the amazing folks they’ve met along the way. Local folks open doors about the best places to visit and they offer a new foreign perspective on life. Don’t expect locals to start conversations with you though. They won’t. You’ve got to start the conversation, but usually people are friendly and it’s well worth it.
What are some of the most adventurous places to travel?
For Westerners, anywhere in Asia. The cultural differences are greatest in East Asian countries, and your mind has to wrap itself around a completely different way of life. The alphabet is different. The food is different. The language and customs are completely different. Generally, it takes the most flexibility to adapt to these places more than anywhere in the world. That said, you’ll learn a lot. You’re mind will be opened to new possibilities. It can almost feel like you’re on another planet.
Aside from East Asian countries, anywhere that has a strong communist influence is also likely to shift your worldview – Russia, China, Cuba…
And generally the transportation system in those places is not set up to cater to tourists. This means you’ll have to do some self-navigating.
Well, with that said, let’s go back to your recent trip to China. You said you’d always wanted to visit there, why?
I wanted to visit for many of the reasons just mentioned. It’s as foreign as foreign can get, and there’s so much going on there.
Aside from the thermostat not working, what other things stood out to you?
The architecture. We loved the architecture. One building was shaped like a globe, another one looked like an onion, and they all lit up at night. That was another government mandate. All the buildings had to light up at the same time for a certain number of hours each night.
When was your interest in travel sparked and what sparked it?
The book, Heidi, at age six. Heidi is about a little girl who lives in Switzerland. I fell in love with Heidi, and I fell in love with Switzerland. I began saving up for a trip by plucking beetles off my father’s rose bushes. He paid me a penny per beetle and I plucked beetles every day that wasn’t winter.
How long was it until you picked enough beetles to get to Switzerland?
Well, I didn’t actually have enough for an extended stay until my sophomore year in college, and it wasn’t all earned plucking beetles.
When I told my parents, they were a little nervous. This was in the 70’s when not a lot of Americans, especially not a lot of young American women, were doing long stints of travel. My mom called around to see if friends knew of anyone I could stay with in Switzerland, and good ol’ mom found an au pair arrangement for me, which worked out great! I lived with a Swiss family, helped them out around the house and had weekends off to travel the country.
Do people still hire au pairs? Would you recommend this job?
I think it’s still pretty common for people to hire au pairs in Europe. It’s a great stint if you’re paired with a good family. There are websites for it.
What did you study in college and how did that relate to being an agent?
I was an English major, and I always tell people that being an English major is helpful with nothing in particular and everything in general.
I didn’t become a travel agent until after I’d been a schoolteacher and then a principal for a few years. When I had my first child, I realized I didn’t have the energy to keep up with children at home and all day at school. That’s when I went looking for another job, I found travel agent-ing, and I’ve loved it. It fits perfectly with my traveling lifestyle.
Do you have any general tips to share about traveling?
Oh, plenty! You’d have to be more specific about what you want to know, and it might take up a whole other article! ((Here is that other article: Travel Agents are Cheaper that Priceline? Click on it to read a travel agent’s need-to-know tips.)
Is there anywhere you recommend a young, female traveler not go?
Well, I can’t say this specifically applies to young female travelers. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to the West Coast of Mexico or Mexico City or Southern Italy right now. Mexico has too much violence due to the drug cartels. Southern Italy is riddled with theft. You’re chances of getting robbed there just aren’t worth going, I’m afraid.
What random, interesting factoids have you learned from traveling and from being a travel agent?
The smaller the pool, the better the beach, and the oldest hotel/motels are usually the best location. If an accommodation has been around a while, it means it’s proven itself and that it’s probably located on prime real estate, since they got there first.
Do all travel agents travel as much as you do?
Nope. I know plenty of home body travel agents. I’d say I’m on the extreme end of the traveling spectrum, and I love it!
Connie Beach knows her stuff. She has helped me get to and through Ireland (Avoca, Dublin and Wicklow), France (Cluny, Paris, the Provence Region, Taize), and India (Delhi, Haridwar, Indore, and Jaipur).
She’s currently helping plan a trip that includes regions in and near India (Agra, Amritsar, Bangalore, Chennai, Goa, Lucknow, Madurai, Nepal, Pondicherry Sri Lanka and Nepal).
Her help has saved me from spending money, time, and worry. She is incredible.
Connie Beach, Mann Travel: firstname.lastname@example.org