Peter Welcome to ActionPacked. On our weekly travel podcast we interview some amazing people who’ve ventured to the far corners of the world.
Felice We hope you’ll feel as inspired as we do by their extraordinary journeys.
Peter This week we’re talking to Wendy Payne whose own podcast, Travel with Wendy, is a bit like an American version of ActionPacked Travel. Wendy promotes small businesses and helps travellers around the globe, whether it’s hiking in Alabama or exploring the Scottish Highlands. Check out her blog, podcast and YouTube channel at Travelwithwendy.net
Welcome Wendy and thank you very much for coming on the show today.
Wendy Thank you so much for having me.
Peter It’s good to have someone on the other side of the Atlantic.
Wendy Exactly. I feel the same way.
Peter So how long have you been running your show for?
Wendy Travel with Wendy has been around for five years now. I started in Germany; I’m a military spouse and I started writing for the newspapers for the military to help get spouses off post and out of their little comfort zone to experience what was around them. What we were finding out was a great deal of military spouses were home alone and they were here in a strange country with a strange language and strange customs. And we were finding out there was a lot of depression and sadness because the spouses would be deployed further away – Afghanistan, Iraq. And so there was a lot of isolation and there wasn’t a real place for people to connect and explore.
So part of my job was to write these kind of fun articles of the local area. And I was studying German on one of the American bases, and my core little group I told them about my job and I said: ‘I need a test group because I want to test these places out before I promote them.’ And of course, right away I had several volunteers. ‘I want to go. I want to go. Oh, you’re talking about a fest in Germany. I want to go.’
I think there’s security in numbers when you travel, and in groups of women. And of course, there isn’t a business in the world that doesn’t love to see a bunch of Americans walking in.
Peter Five years is quite a long time. You’ve learned a lot about podcasting in that time?
Wendy I have, a lot. I started out as a tour operator, then a travel writer. And I was being asked over and over: ‘You really need to start a podcast because you meet some fascinating people and wonderful people, you should add that to your list.’ And of course, just like you busy travellers, people always have really great ideas on what you should do, right? So I didn’t realise how much I would love it, though. I really love podcasting and interviewing new people or old friends that I know from around the globe and getting them to share their heartbeat of the world.
Felice So you were born in New York?
Wendy Yes, northern New York, about 20 minutes from the Canadian border in a little tiny town called Canton. It has a university: St Lawrence University is there. And because we were right along the St Lawrence River it’s very cold there.
Felice I’ve been to the area – for skiing.
Wendy Yes, the Adirondacks, Lake Placid, it’s all right there. And it’s beautiful in the Fall but the winter is just a little bit long for me now.
Peter It’s quite a long winter’ certainly in Canada, we know Quebec which isn’t too far away, it’s very cold.
Wendy Yes, I have relatives who still live in Montreal that we visit. And it’s, again, just beautiful. I love Canada – beautiful country, but I just don’t know if I could live there full time anymore.
Peter So since then you’ve just kept on travelling because of your husband travelling the world?
Wendy Yes. So he’s been in the military – he was on active duty for over 20 years and now he is out working as a government civilian. And we’ve actually moved a little bit more as a civilian career from post to post. In almost a 30-year marriage we’ve moved about 17 times.
Felice So where are you based now?
Wendy We’re in Alabama.
Felice That’s very different from Germany.
Wendy We’re in Huntsville, Alabama, which is where NASA is and the Space & Rocket Center. And I actually have an interview with them tomorrow. They have an international renowned space camp, and children from all over the world come to learn about space and hopefully get them inspired to possibly join the space programme someday, or at least study science more.
Peter So is most of the audience still military or is it widened out beyond now?
Wendy Well, just like everything else it is starting to grow. But, yes, it’s mostly military communities. I’m getting ready to go around the country, kind of post-Covid, to Colorado Springs and I’ll be speaking to some military families out there.
Felice And you travel locally? What did you do when travelling locally – hikes and things like that?
Wendy Yep. And now that I’m here in the States for a couple years and possibly we’ll go back to Germany or Europe, I have really dove into hiking around here. Just two weeks ago, we went to Lexington, Kentucky for the weekend and nobody’s really out right now except on the hiking trails. So it was just wonderful hiking around Kentucky. So I’ll be having a podcast coming out about that, too, and what we discovered.
And then this week, we’re going to Asheville in North Carolina. So there’s a lot of beautiful trails in north Alabama. We’re at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, so it’s lots of freshwater lakes and actually mountains and hills.
Felice And when you were based in Germany, did you travel around Europe a lot?
Wendy Sure. So I started a small company, a small tour company that’s part of Travel with Wendy. And once that little group grew from doing day trips, we went further. So we went to Italy, Slovenia, Scotland, and I would only take about five to six because also at the core of who I am is supporting small businesses. So we would stay at bed and breakfasts, châteaux, agriturismo. And again, I would only take the small groups and rented a big minibus…and we went country to country and stayed for about five days…yes, everywhere.
Peter Because, as you say, for a lot of military spouses coming over from the states arriving in Europe – it’s a pretty strange environment for them, because the language is different, the customs are completely different. How do you get on a train? How do you travel by train, for example?
Wendy Exactly. And as you know, because England has some of the best, travelling by train is a major form of transportation, and sometimes it’s much easier to take the train than to hop in your car based on traffic patterns and busy times of year. So I have an entire book I’ve written on how to take the train in Europe because of that. It’s not that hard once you learn the systems. But I did learn that Spain is a little different than Germany, Germany is a little different than England, and so, just knowing those systems before you go kind of gives you that sense of ease.
Peter We certainly found that last year – we were in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia nearby, we found the trains really good, but was it difficult to work out which platform – it was extremely difficult – we had the platform number but it didn’t seem to correspond to the edge of the track.
Wendy Where were you in the Czech Republic?
Peter Quite a bit of Moravia.
Wendy We went to one of my favourite little towns is Karlovy Vary, and which is probably an hour and a half, two hours from Prague. And it’s where Queen Latifah did her movie Last Holiday. And it’s James Bond; I think they actually filmed two or three James Bonds there. And it used to be called Carlsbad. We looked into taking the train or the bus from Karlovy Vary to Prague. It was only an hour, an hour and a half, and it was so incredibly affordable. It was ridiculous, it was going to be like 10 euros for John and I. But we were about ready to take it, and we get to the train station and they said: ‘Oh, that bus is not really reliable. So you might get up there, but you might not make it back.’ So we were: ‘Oh, I think we’ll just spend another day here.’
Peter We certainly travelled long distances across both countries by train. And as you say, it was 10€ for travelling 500 miles – it was extraordinary. Whereas where we live in in England, it costs a fortune just to travel up to London for the day and, we’re only 70 miles away.
Wendy And one of the most affordable train travel, I think, is along the Riviera in France on the Cote d’Azur. They have a specific tourist train that runs up and down the coast during the summertime, and it is so affordable.
Peter I see you spent some time in Mayrhofen in Austria where they have a steam train.
Wendy I have not taken that.
Felice We love Mayrhofen. We went there for a month one year.
Wendy Did you go skiing there?
Felice No, we went there in summer, which is even more beautiful. The hiking and biking is great.
Wendy I took a small group, actually, just some friends from New Jersey last year who flew over into Zurich, which is going to be a travel tip right there: for Americans flying to Europe, the flights from America to Zurich are 200 to 300 US dollars cheaper than anywhere to fly into in mainland Europe. So I always tell people, just get yourself to Zurich and then you can go anywhere you want, either by train or the hopper, Ryanair, Iberia, whatever. But Zurich is inexpensive.
Felice Because going to Mayrhofen you can fly to Zurich?
Wendy Yes. So this little group, we were staying in Innsbruck. And I said: ‘Oh, we’re going to go to Mayrhofen for the day,’ because I’ve been there for the Cows Come Home celebration in the Fall. And I made friends with this guesthouse owner there, Maria, who I just love – her little chalet is right at the base of the mountain, right under the gondola. I guess it’s not a gondola. What is that? It’s so big.
Felice It’s halfway between a cable-car and a gondola.
Wendy And she’s just so pleasant. And it’s just her and her husband and their two almost 20-year-old children now that run their little guesthouse, and it’s so personable. And you can hear the cows when you’re going to bed, with their bells…and then when you wake up in the morning.
Felice Can you remember the name of the guesthouse?
Wendy It’s Gastehaus Oblasser, but it’s also on my website.
Peter Your tip about Zurich – it also applies to Geneva because I think it’s all travel to Switzerland from from the States – it’s really good value. I do the marketing for Val d’Isere ski resort in France. We have American journalists come over every year; groups of travellers come over and they go via Geneva. It’s almost cheaper than going to the Rocky Mountains.
Wendy Absolutely, I totally agree. And people will say: ‘Well what do I do about a rental car?’ And I say, if you do fly to Zurich, take a train, it’s really inexpensive from Zurich to Munich. You can rent the car in Germany and it’s so much cheaper if you’re worried about the cost of that. But I am learning to tell people: ‘Don’t be always so concerned on cost, because sometimes the most inexpensive is also the most traumatic.’
Peter My advice would always be to travel by train. Particularly the Swiss resorts, where more often than not, there’s a train station actually in the resort itself. Alternatively, private and shared taxis and minibuses, as well as regular buses from the airports. If you Google ‘Geneva’ or, ‘Zurich’ or your destination and you’ll find a dozen different alternatives.
Felice Do you have a favourite spot in Europe where you’ve been?
Wendy I do. And it’s probably going to surprise you. It’s Scotland.
Felice Whereabouts in Scotland? Or all over?
Peter So you know Scotland much better than we do.
Wendy It’s so funny because my English friends say the same thing. They say: ‘Oh, wow, I haven’t been there,’ But I really do. I’ve been out to the Isle of Arran. I love the Oban area, of course the Isle of Skye and Inverness. I mostly fly into Edinburgh and then I kind of decide where I’m going to go from there. And the rental cars are actually affordable, I think.
Felice Do you have a favourite place in the USA?
Wendy I really love mountains and hills, so I’m heading to Colorado in August again for 10 days. So I’m very excited. It has been a while since I’ve been there, but I will be there for 10 days between Denver, Colorado Springs and Vail doing some hiking and seeing friends and also working a little bit, too. But I love the national parks and the state parks in America. And actually I’ve been trying to do a campaign this year because our state parks around America have lost 100% of their federal funding.
So whenever I’m at a state park, I usually do a shout-out like: ‘Please help them,’ because I don’t want them to go away, I love to hike. I’m excited. I’m also going to Oregon. I’ve never been. And I’ve heard that once you go, you kind of leave your heart there. But I do love Maine and Vermont, and I was in Massachusetts for quite some time so I love Cape Cod, that area. And there are some areas that I really enjoy. We will be in Charleston and Savannah next week.
Felice I saw that you have on YouTube some advice about packing and saying that you should just take cabin baggage. Is that what you do?
Wendy That’s all I do. I have this little…you probably saw it from the video…but I just have this little pack and I think people do scenarios in their head of: ‘Well, I might have a fancy night and I need to have this. And these shoes go really well with that.’ When you’re travelling, I always tell people: comfortable shoes, comfortable clothing, and you can mix and match, and scarves and accessories can change an outfit completely. So just don’t really go crazy. So mostly it’s just four outfits and you just interchange, especially a lot of times if you’re just going for those five days, you don’t need as much as you think. But it’s usually my American friends that I have to have a chat with, because they come with the big…for a five-day tour.
Peter We are terrible because normally love skiing in winter, which is one of our main subjects. And that involves taking a lot of stuff with you. Because you know, you’ve got to take ski clothes and normal clothes. It’s quite a lot of stuff to take.
Wendy And I’ve learned with doing the hiking trips, I can put in most everything, even if it’s just three pairs of pants and four shirts and roll them up. And if they get kind of nasty in the five days, you just rinse them out, wash them and hang them up to dry. And then by the next morning, they’re ready to go. But you’re hiking; you’re sweating gross.
Felice And wherever you go, you take quite a lot of video which you put on YouTube?
Wendy Yeah. I started my YouTube channel five years ago when I started. Yeah, I like to do video and I found out through just trial and error that people are really visual and they like seeing the photographs. So even on my blog – I still will write a 1200- or 1500-word blog, but I will probably have about 30 to 35 photos in that same blog, because people are just visual. They want to see. And more and more…my son is 22 and he is studying music videography, and he says: ‘Mom, people just want to watch moving pictures. So even if you just take a video of people walking in the street in a plaza in Italy, they’re excited about it.’
Felice So do you have just one child, or more?
Wendy We have three. Our oldest is Katie – she’s actually still in Germany, she is 25 years old. Christopher’s 22, and then our youngest, Jessica is 17 – going to be 18 in just a couple of weeks.
Felice So do you have any stories from your travels – about things that have gone wrong or funny stories?
Wendy Oh yes, I have a few. One of the most recent ones which you will probably have a similar story. We were in the village of Assisi in Italy and as you know, in Europe and in the UK, almost every weekend there’s a festival of some kind going on somewhere. And you may not always get a heads-up on it, because in my experience, a lot of times that information can only be found at the local tourism office or maybe on a sign somebody posts somewhere, unless it’s like an annual event. And sometimes, though, the whole community just knows that’s the weekend of the Festival of St Margaret and they know that it’s happening.
So we were in Assisi in this past Fall. I have gone to Perugia and Assisi also eight times in the last five years. Never had anything like this happen. And we were there and there was a festival which I was kind of excited about because I thought, ‘Oh, what great luck. I have this group, we’re visiting this wonderful town.’ So we go through the churches, we walk through the town, we shop in the shops, and all of a sudden I start noticing that they’re putting up cones all around the entrances and exits of the city. And after dinner, I didn’t think anything of it, I’m calling my driver and he says: ‘Oh, I’m sorry. They’ve closed the town down for the festival. I can’t get to you.’ And I said: ‘What?’
He said: ‘Okay, maybe.’ And I just felt like we were in some kind of movie. And the joke was on us because everyone was walking around with these beautiful costumes from the 1300s and I was able to get wonderful photography. But my group was getting a little nervous as it was nearing towards 10.30 at night and it was dark. And we were in this Italian town, and my Italian is only piccolo piccolo. I finally was able to contact my good friend Raphaela, who we were staying with and said: ‘I need help. I can’t get a hold of our driver. We need to come home.’ So she directed us to this old back gate of Assisi.
I could see him waving, and we had to run down there, and we had to run about a kilometre to outside the city. Oh and there was a bonfire, which kind of scared us a little bit, but that was normal – they were killing the evil spirits. My group was a little nervous but we were OK.
Felice We’ve sometimes been to Italy In August. And now we know that on August the 15th everything is closed. Everywhere. It’s huge – one of their biggest festivals.
Wendy I’ve had that happen to me, too.
Peter And when we arrive…. at a weekend…we’ve arrived before now at an airport and we’re going to the supermarket to stock up with food. Nothing is open for two days.
Felice No restaurant, nothing.
Peter So it’s kind of difficult. Now you need to know that August 15th is a holiday, a real holiday.
Wendy And one time I went to Bolzano. I should have other stories from other countries, but this is Italy as well. And we were supposed to go to the National Museum – it’s where they have Ötzi, the 4500-year-old man that they found in the Dolomites. Again, I have gone many, many times, brought many groups. It is so obscure of a museum, but it’s so well done. And everyone I’ve brought said: ‘Yeah, we saw that on the itinerary, we were like, OK here’s Wendy and her history again.’
But it’s so well done that you’re transfixed by everything. And it really only takes about an hour to go through. But you kind of don’t want to leave when you’re done, when you find out about the Dolomites and the glaciers or the glaciers that melted in part of the Alps. And so they’ve really done it well. So I am taking a group and I’m so proud, I’ve done this so many times…and it’s closed on Mondays. I could have just checked, but I’ve never, ever obviously been through there on a Monday before.
Peter So do you have any travel tips that you can give our listeners?
Wendy Right now, my biggest travel tips are if you are going to book future travel: One – always use a credit card because most credit cards right now have built-in coverage for what is happening. So you can even ask while you are booking it…the credit card company: ‘I know this is future travel. We don’t know what the future is going to hold. What is your policy if I have to cancel or refund based on Covid and what’s going on?’ You just have a much better response than paying by transfer or paying, you know, in cash out of an account.
Another thing is, book directly through the company. So book through the airline, book through the hotel. One, they need to recoup some of their costs from the travel being aborted in the last few months. And all of the third-party Booking.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor, all of them charge a 15% to 18% fee on top of what the rate is. And so you’re not always guaranteed to get a person if something goes wrong on the other end, when you’re dealing with those third parties.
And I know that it’s hard to not press that easy button because it’s super easy when you’re looking and researching travel to just hit that Orbitz button that’s right in front of you. But it will probably cause you major headaches in the future if you have to cancel or if there’s an issue with trying to rebook. Another thing, tip number three, is always when you’re making a reservation now, write an email so that you have a written discussion with the bed and breakfast or hotel that you’re staying with, even if it’s a Marriott, and ask them what their policies are during Covid. ‘How much is your lead time? Do I have to give you 30 days notice? And what percentage will I get back if it’s two weeks or two days?: So you have that email confirmation and there’s no misunderstanding between the possible reservation and a possible cancellation, because I do know that people are very nervous about booking future travel. However, there are these simple steps that you can take that will probably protect you on your end.
Peter Are people in the States now booking airfares? Because in Europe it’s still very nervous.
Wendy It’s very polarised. So you have some people who were just throwing caution to the wind, don’t wear masks, just out there spreading everything. And then you have other people who are not travelling and they’re going to delay. I had six trips planned for Europe in 2020 and four of them have been rescheduled for next year. I know that we want to be in a hurry to get back to travelling like we did, but I think it’s going to be cautiously. I’m eager, I’m ready, but I also want to be safe and I want my clients to be safe.
Peter I think that’s a priority. Safety must come first for everybody. So Wendy Payne, thank you very much for appearing on our travel podcast. It’s been an absolute delight talking to you.
Wendy Thank you Felice and Peter, it was so great to be here. I hope to chat with you again soon.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes, Stitcher, or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Stay safe and we’ll see you next week.
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