How early do I need to arrive at the airport before my trip?

We hear this question a lot at Witte. The standard recommendation is two hours before for domestic and three hours for international. Keep in mind that this is the standard amount of time. In some cases, it needs to be adjusted. This does not mean, leave home two hours before. You should be at the counter, ready to checkin for your flight. The amount of time it will take varies a great deal. Airport size, time of flight, whether you are being dropped off or need to park, and other conditions can affect the amount of time you will need.

I recently stayed at a hotel, on the grounds of the Charles de Gaulle Airport, the night before my flight home. I had an early morning flight. I was traveling alone. I allowed three hours before my flight to be at the airport. This airport is so large and the distances were so great between check-in, security, and my gate that I barely made it to the gate before boarding. I was really hurrying, too. Always error on the side of more time. You can nap, read, or just people-watch at the airport. I recommend knitting. I also recommend looking at a map of the airport terminal ahead of time, if you are not familiar with it. This information is on most airport websites.

The Gerald R. Ford International Airport has made many upgrades. One of the biggest is that now, all the security funnels through one area. It is not possible to know how many flights are leaving in the same timeframe as yours, so don’t plan on being able to just whisk through the line. There may not be an issue with you or your group, but with a traveler ahead of you. Being patient can go a long way.

Getting to the gate too late can be very frustrating. Gates get crowded, so there may be no place to sit. Travel is fun. Travel is rewarding. You want to have the whole experience be as pleasant as possible. You cannot control every part of a situation, so take control of those you can. Get to the airport early.

Using your travel professional to book your flights will help as well. She can inform you what gate or terminal you need to be at – and also make sure that you have enough time between connecting flights.

Why Should You Visit Cuba?

title: why visit cuba

What makes Cuba so special?

It’s been a couple of weeks now since my last trip to Cuba, and I’m sure I could make another 20 visits and I still won’t really understand the place. I know I’m not the first person to say that.

So why go? What makes it so different from another Caribbean island? Here’s where I’m at:

The History.

You don’t need to be a gearhead old-time car fanatic to take pause over the rainbow of “almendrones” in Havana. In the same way you don’t need to be a historian or architect to appreciate what’s all around you.

Parque Central
Parque Central, Havana

Havana is a big city, and it’s history is equally big. The 3 C’s are all on display:

In times of Colonialism, it was a thriving port and full of Spanish gold and pirates. The forts and cannons are everywhere to prove it.

When Capitalism took hold, Cuba was superlative – the mobsters brought their excesses in night clubs and hotels, and American money built great homes and estates. That’s all still there showing witness, crumbly as it is.

Grand Theatre of Havana
Outside the Grand Theatre of Havana

And, of course, Communism is the Cuba we all think of – and this is the one that I found so interesting – not just in revolutionary relics and soviet-style buildings, but in conversations with Cubans. They are just as eager to learn about life in the States as they are to tell you about theirs.

Playing baseball with local kids at Finca Vigía
Playing baseball with local kids at Finca Vigía

The People.

Yes, lovely people can be found everywhere. But it just felt like a good conversation, even briefly on the street, was enough on its own, and not just a pretext for some other less virtuous motive. Maybe it’s because Cubans are supposed to be miserable, repressed and held back, that they seem to us so friendly and engaged. Maybe it’s just the island life and the rum.

beaches and mojitos

Yes, they would like– and should have– Freedom. But it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate their strong education or healthcare. It’s so complex. Maybe Starbucks doesn’t equal happiness.

The Music.

Ours was a music tour – a children’s choir from California. But even without that special focus, it still would have been a music tour. There is good, no, great music everywhere on that island. From the professional entertainers in restaurants to the street musicians in the plazas, the sounds of Cuba are what sticks with you longest, I think.

Cuban musicians outside a restaurant

Getting to know our Cuban hosts after concert with the Cuban National Children’s Choir
Getting to know our Cuban hosts after concert with the Cuban National Children’s Choir

You should check it out.


Ready to see Cuba for yourself? There are still a few spots left on our “Many Faces of Cuba” tour, with two departures to choose from: 

The Many Faces of Cuba — November 1-9, 2016

The Many Faces of Cuba — November 8-16, 2016

Over the Rainbow: To Cuba with the Michigan Community Touring Choir

CubaEarlier this month, the Michigan Community Touring Choir made “Witte history” as the first of our groups to travel to Cuba!

From April 1 – 8, 2016, I was fortunate to be the Witte representative accompanying the Michigan Community Touring Choir for Witte’s first tour to Cuba! This group was directed by Dr. Meredith Bowen and included singers from the Holland Chorale, Sistrum, and the Lansing Women’s Chorus, as well as a number of other singers from throughout Michigan.

dupont mansion, varadero, cuba
The choir posing in front of Dupont Mansion in Varadero

Their repertoire included the song, Over the Rainbow (arr. Russ Robertson). This song quickly became the theme song of our travels to Cuba—

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Many of us in the group (myself included) were only in elementary school when Fidel Castro came to power in January, 1959. Until very recently, Cuba may as well have been “over the rainbow” as far as most Americans were concerned.

car in trinidad
Trinidad

Part of the appeal of travel to Cuba is because it has been “closed” to most Americans for more than 50 years—but there are many, many reasons why Cuba is a very interesting destination. First of all, it is a beautiful Caribbean Island very close to the United States. Our flight from Toronto to Havana was only 3 ½ hours and in the same time zone, but when we landed, we didn’t have to say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas.” From the moment we entered the chaotic Havana Terminal, it was very clear that we were indeed “over the rainbow”—and in another world.

Besides the beautiful weather, one of the other main attractions of Cuba is their rich culture the “people to people experiences”. For a music group like the Michigan Community Touring Choir, the opportunity to have workshops with Cuban choral directors and joint concerts with Cuban choirs was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

cuban audience in havana
Cuban audience at a performance in Havana

Our group had three choral workshops/exchanges/joint concerts—in Cienfuegos, Matanzas and Havana. The quality of the Cuban choirs was outstanding and the Cuban choirs were equally impressed by the Michigan Choir. In two of the three exchanges, the Cuban directors and choirs taught our group new songs that they performed together at the end of the concerts. Wow– what a special experience for the American and Cuban performers and audience!

Choral workshop in Matanzas
Choral workshop in Matanzas

Whether your future travel plans to Cuba are as part of a performing group or for another of the 12 approved reasons, here are a few highlights plus a few words of advice—

We stayed in Havana the first night and then went to Cienfuegos for two nights before returning to Havana. Day excursions also included Trinidad (near Cienfuegos), Varadero, Matanzas, San Francisco de Paula (Hemingway’s former home) and Cojimar (setting for Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea). The combination of being on the north and south side of the island and in cities, smaller towns and country roads gave us wider view of Cuba. Definitely visit more than just Havana when you go to Cuba.

cienfuegos
Cienfuegos

I had expected run-down buildings badly in need of repair but I wasn’t prepared for some truly magnificent architecture including the Spanish Colonial buildings in Trinidad and homes reminiscent of the French Riviera in Cienfuegos. Havana itself reminded me of a less glamourous version of Nice, France. I was also prepared for and looking forward to seeing all the classic 1950’s American cars—and they were everywhere. What surprised me was that there are lots of newer cars too—and also horse drawn carts.

havana
Horse-drawn cart in Havana

Other surprises—

Hotels: These were a pleasant surprise. We stayed at the Hotel Capri in Havana and the Hotel Jagua. Both are 1950’s vintage, but nicer than expected. The lobbies and public areas were lovely, hotel staff pleasant and efficient, elevators, plumbing and air conditioning worked fine and the breakfast buffets were almost embarrassingly bountiful.

trinidad

Restaurants and Food: Especially as a vegetarian, I was not sure what to expect from the food. In addition to our huge breakfast buffets, most meals were in the private restaurants known as paladares. Many of these are in private homes, so each one is unique. Yes, there were lots of black beans and rice, but the meals were varied and usually included beautiful fresh salads and scrumptious desserts. Non-vegetarians can expect to eat lots of pork and seafood. Besides mojitos, other beverages were always available. Water is always served in bottles.

street dog in Cuba
Street dogs are a common sight in Cuba.

Bathrooms: The amenities for tourists are, of course, worlds away from what the average Cuban experiences. It’s difficult for the Cuban people to purchase even basic items like soap and toothbrushes—so be sure to bring some to give as gifts. Also, many buildings do look like they are about to fall apart and, except for the hotels and nicer restaurants, the plumbing (especially the bathrooms) is inadequate, not very clean, and frequently out of order. As noted in our Travel Tips, make sure to always have toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bottled water.

In spite of these inconveniences, I encourage anyone who has the opportunity go “somewhere over the rainbow” to Cuba. After all, there is no longer any reason to say, “Oh why, oh why can’t I.”

choral performance in Matanzas
The choir performing in Matanzas

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Check out our earlier blog post Travel to Cuba: Who? Why? How? for answers to some FAQ’s.

Witte Travel Guide: Using Your Credit Card Abroad

using your credit card abroad
Are you planning to travel abroad, and unsure if your credit card will work overseas? With Canada, Europe, and much of Asia already using “chip and PIN” credit cards, here’s what you need to know before your next trip.

Continue reading “Witte Travel Guide: Using Your Credit Card Abroad”

Guest Post: Upcoming Tours with John and Lynda Witte

John & Lynda Witte
This post was originally written by John Witte on March 23, 2016


Hello All,

Lynda and I want to update you on the tours on which we still have space for 2016, and give you some preliminary information on our 2017 plans.

On April 7, we are leaving with a group of fellow travelers to explore the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. After a summer break we will be on tour in Spain and Portugal, September 15 – 29. That tour is full but we are accepting people on the waitlist.

During October 17 – 22, we will be in New York City. I lived on Long Island for four years and traveled to the City regularly to see plays, visit museums, and just wander. Since moving away from Long Island, there have been almost yearly trips to the City and sometimes more. Lynda and I love NYC, and we put together a tour showing you some of the main sites– but also some places not generally included in other tours.

We will start the tour by crossing the George Washington Bridge and taking you into Washington Heights to visit Fort Tyrone Park for a great view of the New Jersey Palisades and the GW Bridge. You will also see the point where the Hudson River splits, creating the East River. Afterwards we will see some highlights in Harlem, stroll through Central Park, visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and eat dinner at Sylvia’s– one of Harlem’s most famous soul food restaurants. The following day will include a walk through High Line Park, once an elevated train route along the west side of Manhattan. That same day we will spend time in Chelsea, SoHo, and Chinatown, and we’ll enjoy dinner in Little Italy.

new york city tour
Another day will be spent in mid-town Manhattan where you will see St Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Plaza, Fifth Avenue, Grand Central Station, NYC Library and Bryant Park. We will take a break in the afternoon to take in a Broadway show and end our evening with dinner at the Carnegie Deli, across from Carnegie Hall. We will also spend a day in lower Manhattan to walk part of the Brooklyn Bridge, visit the St. Paul’s Chapel, the 9/11 Memorial site; Trinity Church, Federal Hall where George Washington was sworn in as our first President, Wall Street, and Battery Park for a great view of the Statue of Liberty.

After dinner on your own we will attend another Broadway show.  Our last full day in the City will be a special treat.  My friend, Daniel Meeter, pastor of Old First Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, will join us for a tour of some Brooklyn neighborhoods.  Our evening will end with a dinner cruise on the Hudson and East Rivers; the ship will also pass closely by the Statue of Liberty.  You will have a free morning on the day we are scheduled to fly home.

new york city tour
There has been a lot of attention in the news about Cuba. I am hosting a Cuba tour November 1 – 9 which still has space for ten persons. Besides spending time in Havana, we will explore the lush botanical province of Pinar del Rio, the World Heritage city of Trinidad, and the colonial city of Cienfuegos. This tour will be repeated November 8 – 16, which both Lynda and I will host. That tour is almost sold out, but we are accepting waitlist applications.

Cuba tour destinations

Our tentative plans for 2017 include a tour of Costa Rica during late January into early February, which we will both host. This will be my sixth tour of Costa Rica; it is one of the most beautiful places in the world! We are also finalizing the details for a cruise (February 25 – March 8) which will begin and end in Fort Lauderdale, and will include stops in Aruba, Grand Cayman, beautiful Cartagena in Columbia, and Costa Rica. We will even travel through part of the Panama Canal to Colon, Panama, and will come through the same section of the canal on our return.

Costa Rica cruise tour

During September, we will be doing a Southern Italy tour focusing on Sicily, the Amalfi Coast, Naples, Pompeii, and possibly Rome. Our final adventure will be to Australia during the first half of November.

Let me know if any of these trips interest you, and I will send you more detailed information as it becomes available. And we always appreciate it if you share this information with others!

Sincerely,

Johannes and Lynda Witte

(616) 304-0504


Passionate about expanding their own horizons and those of others, Johannes (John) and Lynda Witte have been leading tour groups to destinations in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia since 1985. John and Lynda’s knowledge and experience have earned them a reputation as top-notch tour leaders, and group members appreciate the way they cater to each individual’s needs and interests. They especially enjoy leading small groups.

Schonnbrunn Palace and Melk Abbey

On my last full day in Europe, I decided to visit Schonnbrunn Palace and then venture to Melk Abbey. Now why visit Melk Abbey when I could have spent another full day in Vienna? It’s simple…in the work I have done at Witte, I have seen the images of Melk Abbey quite often and always wanted to see it in person. Knowing I was a few train rides away, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit this gem.

Schonnbrunn Palace
Schonnbrunn Palace

I again used public transportation to get around, from my hotel to Schonbrunn, from Schonbrunn to Melk, and from Melk back to my hotel. Along the way I logged a lot of miles walking, but it was so worth it.

Melk Abbey - Inner Courtyard
Melk Abbey – Inner Courtyard

Schonbrunn Palace is truly grand and I enjoyed my exterior and interior visit; however, the true “sleeper hit” for my time in Austria was yet to come…Melk Abbey. Once I left the train station, I walked to the city center and then walked up to the Abbey. In the winter you must pay for a guided tour and they only one tour on Saturdays. In hindsight I am so glad this was a requirement. While the Abbey is awe-inspiring, having the guides really made the history come to life. The cost was so worth the one hour tour. Once I left, I thought it might be fun to check out the shops in the city center. Unfortunately my tour ended at 3 pm and the shops had closed for the day. If I am ever in Vienna again, I will be making a side trip to Melk to visit the city center and the abbey.

Guest Post: Iceland First, Then Norway!

Iceland First, Then Norway!

Lynn and I enjoy traveling to new places like Switzerland, Greece and the like. Knowing this, Lynn’s good friend Jerilyn asked us: “Then why haven’t you visited Iceland?” (Jerilyn’s husband was born and raised in Iceland and she has adopted it as her second home.) “Give us 3 good reasons” was Lynn’s response, and here they are:

The first is the beautiful city of Reykjavik, which boasts of having both good shopping and places to enjoy coffee or other beverages of choice. Many simply fly over both the city and the country of Iceland, but those who choose to come and see are never disappointed.

Reykjavic
Reykjavic

The second is the unbelievable landscape, which seems to change depending on the direction you are looking.  Waterfalls in one direction and lagoons in another– it almost seems unreal and yet it’s there, right before your eyes.  So many beautiful places to be seen and appreciated!

Double waterfall Hjálparfoss
Hjálparfoss waterfalls
blue lagoon
The Blue Lagoon

And the third are the people. Every country has its native people and the people of the “ice and rock” country have varied livelihoods; from fishing to sewing, bus driving to providing the everyday services needed by all.  It is fun to sit and talk with them, or listen to qualified guides sharing the local history and folklore.

But then for us…it’s on to Norway.

Stoughton, Wisconsin, where we live, is home to the Norwegian Heritage Center, where the story of Norway is told in captivating ways. In addition to housing the area’s Norwegian heritage, our town also boasts of being home to our own Norwegian Dancers– high school students who have accepted, and then perfected, the art of the Norwegian dance. Colorful dress and athletic movements raises the question “Where does this comes from, and what is the history behind this beauty and grace?”

So we’ve asked our Norwegian friends, “Why visit Norway?”  Here is what they have to say:

“You just have to see the fiords!” Breathtaking beauty, awesome grandeur, unbelievable majesty. The deep cuts in the mountains leave everyone at a loss for words to sit in wonder of the creation that is ours to enjoy. Worth taking pictures? Take as many, or as few, as you like—many keep and store them forever in their mind and in their heart.

fjords
Søgne, Norway

Next, “don’t miss sampling the food and drink!”  The uniqueness of any culture comes alive in their food and drink.  Visiting the places that the locals go in order to socialize and relax gives a glimpse into who they are today, and the heritage they proudly carry.  The language is different but the welcome is sincere and heartwarming. Sit back and enjoy!

And finally, “make sure you see and appreciate the historical buildings unique to Norway.” Of particular interest are the churches, courthouses, homes and farms—they all tell a story of how things were at another point in time and how the foundations they set are still found in the country’s life today. Aided by knowledgeable guides, these buildings and places come alive literally “talk” to we who visit and choose to listen.

Borgund stave church in Norway
Stave Church

We are excited to see these places and experience them for ourselves, and we would be delighted to have you join us on our tour.


Rev. Jerry & Lynn Tews are passionate about traveling and experiencing other cultures. They have taken many groups on tour to Europe, but this will be their first time visiting Iceland and Norway! You can learn more about the itinerary or sign up for the tour here: Splendors of Norway with a Touch of Iceland!

Splendors of Norway with a Touch of Iceland
July 24 – August 3, 2016

From the geothermal springs in Iceland, to a cruise on the sparkling fjords, and a railway excursion in Norway, this tour is sure to pique your interest! The 11-day tour begins with two days in the Icelandic capital city of Reykjavik. Highlights include the Blue Lagoon geothermal springs, harbor views and an in-depth guided city tour. A short flight to Norway and we’re in the land of fjords, mountains and midnight sun. Stops in Norway include Oslo, Lillehammer, Sogndal, Troldhaugen, Bergen and more!

Have you visited Iceland or Norway? Share your story with us in the comments or on Facebook!

Yellowstone – Breath, Bison & Babies

Yellowstone National Park
So we did it. Took the family on that great American road trip to Yellowstone. We had lots of great stops along the way, and got our money’s worth from our National Parks Annual Pass. (Turns out that great 4th-graders-and-family deal only applies during the school year!)

If you’re headed to Yellowstone and want some advice…buy a guide book.  Seriously.  Lots of good advice in there.  You’ll use it.  A lot.  Or you’ll drive past a lot of really cool stuff you never knew was there.

So I thought I’d share 3 surprises I encountered, even as guide-book prepared as I thought I was:

1. Breath.  As in, why can’t I catch mine?  It took me a few days of ego-battering before I realized that when I came down through that gorgeous mountain pass to enter through the Northeast Entrance, I never really made it all the way back down the other side….Old Faithful sits at 7,367 feet – just about the same as Machu Picchu!

2. Bison.  While we’re talking heights – who knew that bison were such alpine forest dwellers!  Sure – there they were by the hundreds in the valleys and plains.  But what are they doing in the woods? That wasn’t in Dances with Wolves.

2

3. Babies.  So all this wildlife that Yellowstone promises?  It’s there.  And apparently when it’s not busy migrating or preparing for winter, it’s busy making babies.  With all we saw during our week-long early July visit, we could hardly name an animal we saw that did not include miniature, fuzzy, just want to pick it up and cuddle it, versions of the species.  Bison, bears, elk, pronghorn, deer, turkeys, heck squirrels and baby duckies – they’re all cute!

Yellowstone National Park
If you have never been to our first National Park — make your plans now.

If you have, what surprised you? Tell us about it in the comments, or let us know on Facebook!

Traveling In Europe By Train

Europe By Train

Have you ever decided to do something while traveling and then wondered if that was a good decision?

Recently, I planned a trip for my family to travel around Europe by train. We planned on visiting four countries during our vacation. After considering the pros and cons of renting a car or traveling by train, train travel stood out as the best choice for us. I have traveled by train in Europe without my family in the past and really enjoyed it, but that was years ago. What if traveling with a family was more difficult? What if I didn’t remember how to do it or screwed up and got on the wrong train or off at the wrong destination and lead my family astray? These questions swirled around in my mind.

Because we were going to several different destinations, I decided to purchase Eurail passes for each of us. Eurail offers quite a few options for passes, so you can pick the best-fitting one based on how many countries you will visit and how many days you want to travel. We purchased the Eurail Select Pass, which worked perfectly with our itinerary because it would allow us to travel throughout 4 bordering countries of our choice. Next, I looked at all of the train departure times and made reservations on the trains that required a reservation. I also downloaded the Eurail “Rail Planner” app on my phone. This app gave me access to rail schedules, made it easy to locate train stations, displayed city maps, and much more. We were well prepared before we left for Europe.

Salzburg Train Station
Waiting at the train platform in Salzburg, Austria

Once we arrived in Europe, we walked to the train station that was located right at the airport. By looking at the train arrival/departure monitors, we could see which track our train would come in on, as well as the exact time it was scheduled to depart. All we had to do was head to the platform and wait for the train. Once we loaded our luggage on the train, we were able to relax and enjoy the ride. After a long night of sitting cooped up on an airplane, it felt so nice to be on the train; we could get up and walk around as much as we wanted or enjoy the comfortable train seats. And the views out the windows were a great way to acclimate ourselves to our current location.

Train Travel in Europe
Enjoying the big windows and roomy seats on the train after a cramped overnight flight.

My family embraced riding on the train. Our teenagers were excited to discover that the “the train was just like the trains used in the Harry Potter movies.” They loved that there was a food car on most of the trains as well, and that we were served a meal on the long train rides. Traveling in Europe by train with my family was just as good as it had been when I traveled alone. The extensive rail network in Europe made it simple to transfer from one destination to the next, and getting on and off the train was much easier than I remembered. There was no reason for me to be worried at all and I will definitely plan to travel by train in Europe again.

If the ease, comfort, and convenience of train travel appeals to you, let us know and we can help you arrange rail tickets and passes for your next vacation. Witte Travel & Tours is the only agency in West Michigan that has a direct link to Rail Europe’s reservation system, so we can process rail passes quickly while avoiding costly shipping fees.

What has been your experience with traveling by train? Share your stories with us on Facebook, or let us know what you think in the comments!