Use Home Automation to Help With Your Travels

October 12, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Travelers in the 21st century have so much cool gadgetry to play with, I’m always torn between staying home to play with it and going out on the road to test it out.

Thanks to voice assistants like the Amazon Echo (Alexa), Google Assistant, Apple Home, and Cortana, you can automate certain home functions to not only make life easier, but you can function while you’re on the road.

Of course, there’s the direct function — “Alexa, turn on the study light,” “Okay Google, play Arcade Fire.” — that lets you control things around the house. You can turn on appliances by using wifi-enabled smart plugs (like this one from TP-Link, $16.99 on Amazon). Just plug in a lamp or appliance, connect it to the app on your phone, and you can tell your smart speaker to turn it on and off.

(If you jump on the home automation bandwagon, get devices from the same manufacturer so you can control them all with one app. Think long-term about what you would like to do and then make sure one manufacturer makes all of those. Also, if you don’t have a smart speaker yet, pick one that is supported by most manufacturers. I’ve found Amazon Alexa has the most device support with Google Assistant coming in second.)

But you’re not just limited to smart plugs. There are also light switches, light bulbs, and thermostats that can connect to your smart speaker and this is where home automation can really help you travel.

You can trigger a smart device either by your smart speaker, you can do it with the mobile app made for that device.. This means you can control things when you’re anywhere in the world.

For example, we all know we’re supposed to lower our thermostat to 60 degrees when we go on vacation during the winter. That’s warm enough to keep pipes from freezing, but cool enough that you’re not going to have a huge heating bill when you get home. Except you forgot to turn it down before you left and you didn’t realize it until you were six hours away.

Rather than fretting about your utility bill the entire time, just set the thermostat to the right temperature from your phone. You can also use a smart thermostat to schedule temperature changes. For example, if the house is empty during the day, bump the temperature 6 – 8 degrees up (summer) or down (winter), and return it to normal 30 minutes before you get home. But rather than do it by phone every day, you can set this as an automated schedule on your app.

Advanced Home Automation for the Traveler

But this is all basic stuff. I mean, it’s useful and helpful, but if you really want to automate your travels, you need to look at some workflow automation services.

There are two main automated workflow services, IFTTT.com (which stands for If This, Then That) and Zapier. IFTTT has curated a small collection of travel-related applets, but you have to search more on Zapier for any useful zaps.

Screenshot of IFTTT.com. This is a great resource for home automation.

But for what we need, we don’t have to choose. Just pick one service and start using it. Get used to how they work, find the recipes you want to use, and practice using them. Then you’ll know how they work when it’s time to leave.

Here are a few recipes you can use the next time you travel (IFTTT calls them “Applets,” Zapier calls them “Zaps”. I’m just going to keep calling them “recipes” so I don’t have to keep writing “Applet or Zap”).

  1. Save all photos to Dropbox or Google Drive. You can clog up your phone if you take a lot of vacation pictures, so this is a way to back them all up to the cloud so you don’t lose them if you lose your phone.
  2. When you check in at a place (the airport), email or text someone so they know you’re safe. If you’re traveling on your own, or even if you need to let someone know when to pick you up, use a recipe like this to alert people when you check in via Foursquare.
  3. Send vacation pictures to your family. One recipe I found lets you email photos up to five people from your Gmail (others will let you select up to 20). You can also upload them to an RSS feed or a WordPress blog. Sure beats those slide shows we sat through when I was a kid.
  4. Cross-post Instagram photos to Twitter. Normally on Instagram, you can share your photos to Twitter, but the photo itself doesn’t publish, only a link to the Instagram page. You can push the native photo out to Twitter with a recipe so your tweet will look exactly as you want it to. And then set up another recipe to post anything from Instagram to your Tumblr blog.
  5. Get airline ticket price alerts from The Flight Deal. If you’re flexible on your travel dates, you can set an alert to let you know when there’s a flight deal out of a specific city, like your closest airport. When you get the deal, buy the ticket, and plan your vacation!
  6. Automatically adjust your thermostat based on your Google Calendar. When you set a vacation on your calendar, your Google Assistant can adjust your thermostat up or down when it knows no one will be home. This can be on top of your regular daily schedule.
  7. Get travel alerts from the WHO or State Department. Depending on where you’re traveling, you may need to know if there’s anything you need to be worried about, like civil unrest or other travel warnings from the State Department, or a disease outbreak notification from the World Health Organization.
  8. Get weather alerts texted to you. You can have rain and snow alerts texted to you whenever there’s an inclement weather forecast in your area. For example, Zapier has Will It Rain Today and What’s The Weather zaps to tell you if you need to pack an umbrella or sweater.

Home automation has come so far since those days of plug-in lamp timers that would turn lights on and off at exactly the same time every day. Now you can turn smart devices on and off with your voice or via your phone, keeping your home safe, secure, and efficiently run while you’re away.

Have you joined the home automation revolution? How do you use home automation and workflow automation to make your life easier? Do you use it for vacation? Share your tips and ideas on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Go Device-Free On Your Next Vacation

September 27, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Living down in Orlando, Florida means we see a lot of tourists. A LOT of tourists. And I’ve noticed that, wherever we go, especially to Disney World, people still spend a lot of time staring at their phone and missing out on the fun and joy of the most magical place on Earth!

Parents and kids alike, when they stop for lunch, will spend several minutes swiping, swiping, swiping at their phones, looking at whatever they think is more important than the trip that’s no doubt costing them a few thousand dollars, and they traveled hundreds of miles to get to.

(Of course, you need something to do while waiting in line, so I can’t blame anyone for being bored for a 90-minute wait for Tower Of Terror.)

I’m sure many people are just documenting their times, sharing photos to Instagram and Facebook, telling all their friends what a wonderful time they’re having.

But I want to issue a challenge: The next time you go on vacation, avoid using your phone for as long as you can.

A giant cell phone at the Disney World Pop Century Resort - A great place to try to go device-free for vacation

A giant cell phone at the Disney World Pop Century Resort

Set a No Phones rule for a day or two, and see how it goes. No social media, no texting friends, no checking email, and no pictures (kind of; more on that in a minute). No one can look at their phone for the entire day. And if you really want to commit to it, leave your phones in the hotel.

That doesn’t mean the entire family should be without a phone. At least one adult should carry a phone for emergencies. (And if you really wanted to avoid temptation, get a pay-as-you-go phone only for that purpose.)

Of course, you may want your kids to carry their phones in case they get separated and you need to get in touch with them. Instead, ask them to delete their social media apps (they can easily be downloaded later), and tell them no texting. Have them put their phone in airplane mode, and they won’t be able to receive texts or phone calls from friends.

Make it a challenge. See who can go without checking their phone the longest. I’ve heard of some people who, when they go to lunch together, will stack their phones on the table. The first one to break down and check theirs has to buy lunch for everyone. That includes answering phone calls or responding to the sweet siren song of the text notification.

Sweeten the pot a little bit. Everyone can carry their phone, but the first person to check theirs for any reason (other than checking reservations) has to do a family chore at the end of the day. Or anyone who checks their phone has to put some money into the family kitty, and that’s used to help pay for dinner on the last night out. (And no checking phones during bathroom breaks!)

If you need to take photos, you can carry an inexpensive digital camera (you can get them for less than $100), and just upload the photos when you get back to your hotel that night (assuming you brought a laptop) or when you get back home. Or, if phones are in airplane mode, they can still take pictures.

Finally, there is a question of personal security you should consider. It’s not a good idea to share vacation photos on social media while you’re actually on vacation. You’re essentially telling everyone that you’re not at home, which means your stuff could be stolen while you’re away. So even if you don’t take the no-phone challenge, at least consider refraining from posting vacation photos until you get home.

What are your family rules about mobile phones on vacation? How do you encourage face-to-face communication on vacation? Share your ideas and stories on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Jared (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

How to Avoid Getting Sick Before Your Vacation

September 13, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

You’ve planned and saved and dreamed. You’ve pored over travel guides and websites. And you made lists, bought supplies, and packed and repacked everything five times. It’s your big vacation and you’ve been looking forward to it for months!

Except now, the night before you leave, there’s a little tickle in the back of your throat and your nose is running.

You’re getting sick. It feels like a cold, and with any luck, you can get over it with a day or two of rest and a few pain relievers. But it could be the flu, and not only will you be miserable for a few days, but traveling will be agony.

If you want to avoid getting sick before your vacation (or at all!), there are a few things you need to do in the days and weeks before you leave in order to stay healthy.

First, pull your kids out of school and don’t let them out of the house until you leave.

Okay, don’t really do that; that would be terrible. But do share these practices with your kids, because it’s usually our kids who bring colds home with them and spread them to the rest of us. And then they’re the ones who are all better by the time vacation starts, while the parents are slowly dying in the front seat.

1. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough

And don’t do it with your hands! When you sneeze or cough, do it into the crook of your elbow or on the upper sleeve of your shirt.

Why? Imagine this scenario: You meet someone and you shake their hand, because that’s what polite people do. What you don’t know is the other person sneezed into their hands 30 seconds earlier, and they’re sporting the beginnings of a cold. And now you’re laid up in bed for two days because Typhoid Barry or Sherry didn’t know the etiquette about coughing and sneezing!

Also, don’t ever blow your nose into a tissue and then stick it up the sleeve of your sweater. Think about what you just put into that tissue. Now think about where you just put it. Why would you even save that? (And don’t get me started about handkerchiefs!)

2. Get plenty of sleep.

The temptation as you spend the next few days getting ready is to stay up late or get up early finishing last minute projects around the house. I know when I go on vacation, I rarely sleep more than a few hours before we leave. I also stay up late most nights, which puts me at risk of getting sick anyway.

When we’re exhausted, our body’s immune system doesn’t work at peak efficiency, and we’re more likely to get knocked down by a bug. So get your eight hours every night. Take a nap during the day, if possible. Don’t stay up later than you normally do. Sleep is essential for our health, so make sure you’re getting plenty of it.

3. Stay hydrated

You can avoid getting sick before your vacation if you take care of yourself.

Make sure you wash your hands after you do this!

One way to keep from getting sick is to drink plenty of water, since it helps flush out your system. And if you get sick, you can speed up your recovery this way too.

You should be drinking plenty of water throughout the day, although I don’t know how much. Some people say eight glasses a day, others say one ounce per pound of body weight (or at least your desired body weight). And still others emphasize liquids and not just water.

Instead of trying to figure out glasses and ounces, the general rule of thumb is to drink enough so that when you go to the bathroom, everything is, uh, “all clear.” As long as it’s clear when you go, you’re getting enough water.

4. Wash your hands for 20 seconds

Do this especially if you ignored item #1. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. That’s as long as it takes to sing the Alphabet song or to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. That will eliminate nearly all of the germs on your hands. You especially need to do this if you’re preparing food or getting ready to eat.

Also, remember there are plenty of dirty surfaces you come in contact with throughout the day. So it’s a good idea to take some anti-bacterial wipes to wipe down tables, airplane and airport armrests, and even the check-in kiosk at the airport (which is the dirtiest place in the entire airport!).

And try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. You can pick up germs and then transfer them into your system by rubbing your eyes, “scratching inside” your nose, or even putting food in your mouth. Carry some hand sanitizer in your luggage, car, purse, backpack, or briefcase.

5. Take your medicine if you start to feel sick

While I can’t tell you which medicines you should take, I can tell you that trying to tough out a cold or flu is not a good idea. You’ll feel absolutely miserable the entire time, and it’s just not worth it. Let your body heal itself without putting more stress on it by feeling miserable.

This also means drinking plenty of fluids. So if you’re not much of a water drinker when you’re healthy (item #3), you absolutely need to start when you’re sick. You’re more likely to sweat, you may go to the bathroom more often, and you’re more likely to get dehydrated. So drink up while you’re laying in bed or on the couch.

Finally, remember that you’re still contagious for up to 48 hours after you recover from an illness. You can still spread a cold or flu even after you feel better, so make sure you wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow, get plenty of sleep, and encourage the rest of your family to do the same. This way, no one else in the family will get sick.

How do you avoid getting sick, especially before trips? Share your tips and tricks on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: PXhere.com (Creative Commons 0)

How to Find the Cheapest Airline Ticket Price Available

August 30, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Finding the cheapest airline ticket price can be a bit of a crapshoot. I was talking to a friend who says he subscribes to Airfare Watchdog as a service. A few months ago, he saw a ticket price from Orlando to Las Vegas for $118, so he marked it to keep an eye on it.

He said that he has never seen that price again, and only sees ticket prices for $185, regardless of the airline. But the $118 has disappeared forever.

Now, $185 is a good price for a flight to Vegas. After all, you’re asking a company to transport you nearly 2500 miles in a couple hours, and you’re worried about $67? You couldn’t make the drive to Vegas for $185, so that’s even a good deal.

But still, when you want to take four people for that price, you’re looking at a $740 price tag, which starts to get pricey. So how do you make sure you get the cheapest tickets you can? Here are a few tips to try.

1. Use a Credit Card with Travel Points

United Airlines sometimes offers the cheapest airline ticket prices, but you have to know how to find them.My friend travels enough and uses a dedicated credit card enough that he’s able to take an annual honeymoon with the points he’s accumulated. He uses this credit card for everything, and then pays it off each month, which really racks up the points. When it comes time to buy his tickets, he’s accumulated enough points that his tickets are often free.

Get a credit card that accumulates travel points, like a Chase Visa or American Express Gold (they partner with Delta and accumulate miles) and use it for day-to-day buying. Pay your bills with your credit card, and then pay it off each month. Get a card that’s branded with your favorite airline, and you can sometimes get additional points when you buy certain items.

2. Subscribe to a fare watch service

There are apps and services like Momondo, Thrifty Traveler, and Hopper, which can track places you want to visit, or send you special deal alerts for different destinations.

In some cases, you have to be ready to buy at that moment, for others, you have to be ready to leave that weekend. You can also use Google Flights to monitor a specific destination and fluctuating ticket prices.

Google Flights and Momondo will both tell you whether the price is the best one available, based on historical data. Hopper uses historical data and current ticket prices to create a calendar of best and worst times to fly. And Thrifty Traveler will tell you when there’s a serious deal you should consider, even if it wasn’t originally on your itinerary, so be open to new options.

3. Book Early

The closer you get to your departure date, the higher the price gets.

That’s as simple as I can make it. Buy your tickets as soon as you decide to go.

4. Be Flexible on Dates

Friday departures cost more than Wednesday departures. It costs more to fly on Sunday than Monday. And your mid-week trip will cost less if you travel on Saturday instead of Friday. (Making the case for a nice bleisure trip if you’re traveling for business.)

When you need the cheapest airline ticket, select the flexible travel dates option on your website. It will show you the cheapest prices which may offer you some unusual travel times. You may be flying out at 5:30 in the morning or late at night. You may go a day earlier than you wanted or leave a day later than you hoped. Either way, if you need to save money, then don’t lock in your travel dates until you know when you’ll be flying.

5. Buy Immediately!

This last one is an important one. Don’t start researching ticket prices until you’re ready to buy. My friend said he saw the $118 ticket price, and he could have bought it, but instead he saved it for later, and the price “disappeared.” It’s not going to be back either, because that was a one-time special offer.

It may show up if he checks in again anonymously (more on that in a minute), but because these websites use cookies and keep track of your IP address, they know that you’re already interested in a fare to that location, and so they may hide the “enticement price” in the future.

So if you need to do some research, you can Google a destination — “how much are airline tickets to Las Vegas?” — and get a budgetary figure, but if you find a low ticket price, buy it immediately. Don’t wait until you’re closer to the date, don’t put it off until you feel less worried. If you need to save $268 on four tickets to Vegas, buy them as soon as you see them.

And if you already peeked, and need to “reset” your cookies, there are a few things you can try:

  1. Clear your cookies. Go into your browser preferences and delete your cookies. This will delete everything like saved passwords, login information, website preferences, and so on, but the travel websites won’t recognize you. Probably.
  2. Do an Incognito or Private search. In your browser, go to the New window, and look for the Private/Incognito setting. This is a new window that works like you completely wiped your browser, and when you close it, nothing will be saved. That means you can visit a website “for the first time” every time.
  3. Use a VPN. A Virtual Private Network is a piece of software that actually directs your web browser to another server before going out and visiting whichever website you choose. So while you sit in Columbus, Ohio, you can make it look like you’re sitting in St. Louis or Houston. This will disguise your location from the website, and they won’t know your individual location.

How do you find your cheap airline ticket prices? What’s your favorite service or method? Share your tips and tricks on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Cliff/United Airlines (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

How to Get Exercise While You’re on Vacation

August 16, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Many people who exercise regularly are often reluctant to go on vacation because it ruins their exercise routine. They’ll spend a week not working out, and returning to their regular schedule can feel like drudgery.

Other people would welcome the relief, but they worry that if they stop, they won’t return to it. So what can you do to maintain some kind of fitness routine when you’re away from home and your favorite gym or running routes?

To begin with, make sure to pack your workout gear, but here are a few other things you should try.

Count your steps

Hotel Gym at Casa Velas Hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. You can find a fitness room at most vacation hotels.

Hotel Gym at Casa Velas Hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

If you’re already a walker or runner, use your mobile phone to count the number of steps you take while you’re out seeing the sites. You may find that you walk as far or farther than you normally do in a regular workout. You can even schedule walking tours of the places you’re visiting to help.

I prefer the Pedometer++ app for my step-counting, although there are others you can use. It gamifies walking, which means I can earn badges and accomplishments just for walking every day. And since we walk a lot on vacation, I know how much exercise I’m getting, so I can complain about it on Facebook the next day.

Find some workout videos on YouTube

If yoga is more your thing, you can always do your routines in your hotel room. Some of the fancier hotels will provide a yoga mat for their guests, but if you’re driving to your destination, you can always pack your own.

That may be a little tricky on a plane, since most yoga mats are wider than suitcases are long. But you can do it if you only have one other carry-on item; you’re allowed a carry-on bag and a personal item, so just carry your yoga mat.

Also, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of yoga videos online, whether it’s YouTube or one of the many yoga apps available. Pick a few of your favorites and work out to those.

You can also do an online search for local yoga studios and visit one of those as well.

Scout out some safe running routes before you arrive

Look at Google Maps and check out some walking routes between your hotel and a couple of sights or points of interest. Google is fairly reliable in checking out walking routes that keep you off of busy highways and out of construction. Find a sight you’d like to see, plot a walking route from your lodgings, and head out the door.

You can also check out sites like Runkeeper.com, the Map My Run app, or even the USA Track & Field’s running database.

Finally, look for a local running group or run shop in your destination and see if they have any scheduled runs or workouts.

Get a hotel with a workout room

It may cost a little more, but if you’re dedicated to staying fit, it’s worth it. Most hotel gyms have an exercise bike, treadmill, and maybe a few weights. If you need to move some iron, you won’t find the big racks of weights at a Holiday Inn Express, but there will often be a small universal weight machine. But if you’re looking for cardio workout equipment, most hotels have you covered.

If you need to find a hotel with a good workout facility, use Trip Advisor or Yelp, as well as the hotel’s own website, to get the insight on what they have to offer.

See if your local gym has sharing privileges at other affiliates

Places like the YMCA, Planet Fitness, and Anytime Fitness often have sharing privileges from gym to gym, regardless of where you are. So if you already belong to one of those gyms, you can flash your membership card at the gym in your destination city and use their equipment.

And sometimes you just need a break

Finally, remember you’re on vacation. You’re supposed to take a break from work, from stress, and all the things that drive you mad. Splurge on some food, cheat on your diet, and don’t beat yourself up just because you miss a couple workouts. You can get back into the swing of things when you get home. Relax and enjoy your time off.

Besides, an important part of exercise is the recovery process. So consider this a critical step in your health journey. Just remember to start back up again when you get home.

How do you exercise while you’re on vacation? Do you work harder or count on some of your activities to give you that workout? Share your tips and tricks on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

How to Get Tax Deductions for Part of Your Vacation

July 26, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

One thing I’ve learned as a small business owner and a freelance writer is that you can take tax deductions on certain parts of your vacation, but it has to be done very carefully.

Previously, I’ve talked about “bleisure travel,” which is the practice of tacking a small vacation onto the beginning or end of a business trip. Then, if you’re visiting a city you’ve always wanted to explore, you can take a couple days off or stay over the weekend, and pay for your added hotel and food expenses yourself. It’s a great way to get to see a part of the world you might otherwise never visit.

But this is a little bit different. Taking tax deductions on your vacation means tacking a little bit of work onto your leisure time, not the other way around.

Before we go any further, let me issue two warnings:

  1. This is not professional tax advice. Talk with your accountant before you actually do this to make sure you’re deducting the right activities and so forth.
  2. You’re not going to be able to deduct your entire vacation, so don’t get ideas of taking a world cruise on the government’s dime.

1. Part of your vacation has to be work-related, like a conference or business meeting.

A trade show floor. You need to do some work on vacation if you want any tax deductions.To begin with, taking a vacation closely related to your work qualifies. This is sometimes referred to as a busman’s holiday, which is a vacation spent following or practicing one’s usual occupation. In the days of bus conductors and bus drivers, a busman might spend a day off riding on a pal’s bus or even take the bus to get to his holiday, hence the name.

A professional writer could visit a writer’s conference or research a particular location or city for her book; a house builder might spend a holiday week repairing and building houses for his church’s missions trip; a museum director would spend her holiday visiting museums in other cities or countries. Even a theater teacher heading to New York to watch Broadway plays could count that as professional development. In essence, if you are doing an activity that helps you improve your business, your work skills, or expand your knowledge, that can be tax deductible.

2. Schedule any business appointments before you leave.

According to Quickbooks,

. . .you must have at least one business-related appointment set up before you leave. It’s not possible to deduct any expenses if you leave with the idea that once you arrive, you will meet contacts and conduct business on the fly. The IRS expects you to establish a “prior set business purpose,” and keep a copy of your correspondence and books showing the scheduled appointments.

So, schedule your meetings and events before you ever leave. Mark them on your calendar, and save all the emails related to scheduling. This way, you can show you set the meetings before you left, if there’s ever a need to prove your deductions.

3. If you travel on a weekday, that can be deducted as business travel.

If you’re attending a conference or setting business appointments, travel during the week to get there and back. If your trip is being used primarily for business (i.e. you’re not taking a two-week vacation with one day of business meetings), you can deduct your transportation costs, whether it’s airfare or mileage. You can also deduct expenses on business days, like lodging, taxis/ride sharing, and 50% of your food.

4. Keep track of everything.

According to the IRS, you don’t need to keep receipts for anything under $75, but you do need to keep track of when everything happened. Whatever you do that’s work related, keep track of it in a diary or on your electronic calendar. Appointments, travel times, meals, conference sessions, you need to keep track of anything that ties into your business travel. That way, if the IRS wants to check, you can prove that you have legitimate charges and aren’t just counting handing out business cards at the hotel’s happy hour.

You can also get by with electronic copies of your receipt. I use Receipts by Tidal Pool Software to take photos of all my receipts, regardless of the amount. You could also use Evernote or just take photos of everything and upload them to a designated folder. I like Receipts because it keeps track of the amounts and I can export reports for the year’s taxes.

5. Just remember, you can only deduct your portion, not your family’s.

If you fly to get to your vacation, only your ticket is deductible. But if you drive, the mileage is deductible, and you still managed to get everyone there. Just remember, if you take the tax deductions, you can’t claim the expenses too (e.g. gas costs). You can only do one or the other.

It’s the same with food (only 50% of your cost is deductible), the hotel room (if you need two rooms, yours is deductible), and you certainly can’t deduct any entertainment expenses (unless that’s your actual job, and this is a research trip).

Finally, remember, your family wants to take this vacation with you, so don’t spend all your time working in an attempt to make this vacation as cheap as possible. They’ll accept a day or two of you working while they go off and have fun, but the whole reason for the vacation is to get a break for a while. Take advantage of it.

While you won’t pay for your entire vacation, you can at least see some tax benefits from tacking a little work onto your time off. Just remember to talk to your accountant or other tax professional before you book that three-week Hawaiian “business trip.”

Have you ever taken a busman’s holiday or deducted business expenses on a family vacation? How did you do it? Share your tips and tricks on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: ADunwoody07 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)

Should You Purchase Travel Insurance for a Family Vacation?

July 12, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting old, but I’ve started buying travel insurance for my business flights.

It’s like that scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — not the new one with Benedict Cumberbatch, but the one from 1982, which is another sign that I’m getting old — when Kirk is dismayed to learn he needs to wear reading glasses, and is embarrassed to be seen using them during the final epic battle.

Maybe things aren’t as dire as that, but I still had that sense of reluctance three years ago when I clicked the button to buy $28 travel insurance for a flight.

It made sense though. I was spending $300+ on a business flight during the stormy season here in Orlando, and there was a good chance my flight could be delayed, which would have seriously hurt the whole purpose of the trip.

Then, the unthinkable happened: I started wondering about whether it was necessary to purchase travel insurance for family trips too.

Short answer, Yes.

Longer answer, Yes because. . .

Yes, because if you’re flying to your destination and have to cancel because of illness, you don’t want to be out the cost of the tickets. Airlines don’t give reimbursements for illness, only mechanical failures and only if you don’t take another flight and file a claim on time.

Yes, because if you spend the entire trip in the hotel and have to cancel all of your reservations, park tickets, helicopter rides, ski lift tickets, or scuba diving lessons, you don’t want to be out that much money. (If you’re sick, however, you have to show proof, like paperwork and forms from a doctor’s visit. They don’t just take your word for it.)

A blizzard in Bilerica, Massachusetts in 2013.Yes, because if you get sick enough that you have to see a doctor or go to the hospital, you don’t want to have to pay out-of-pocket expense or out-of-network non-insured medical costs. (Save those forms!)

Yes, because if you get sick in a foreign country, your medical costs could be much, much higher because you’re a foreigner.

Yes, because if your trip gets canceled due to weather and you missed your vacation window because of a week-long blizzard (it happened to dozens of families this past winter trying to fly to Florida from Boston), you want to be able to reuse that money for another trip.

Yes, because if you or your spouse gets laid off from your job after you’ve already made your reservations and bought your tickets, you can’t expect a full refund. Remember, airlines only give reimbursements when a cancellation is their fault. You might be able to cancel your hotel, but you won’t get a refund on those park tickets or sporting event passes.

Yes, because even if you take a car trip instead of a plane trip, all of those other things — reservation and ticket cancellations, illnesses — can still happen just as easily. You can still spend all week in the hotel, or still be snowed in your garage, or still cancel that trip to the beach because of Hurricane You’re-Never-Going-To-See-The-Beach-Again. Maybe you didn’t buy plane tickets, but you could still have to cancel or cut a trip short because of an unforeseen problem.

The TravelInsuranceReview.net website lists several different kinds of coverage you can get, and it really makes you realize all the things that could go wrong.

Most Popular Coverage Criteria

  • Emergency Medical (at least $50,000)
  • Medical Evacuation (at least $100,000)
  • Pre-existing Medical Conditions
  • Cancel For Any Reason
  • Hazardous Sports
  • Hurricanes & Weather
  • Terrorism
  • Employment Layoffs
  • Missed Connections
  • Rental Car Coverage
  • (There’s a lot more to it, so be sure to read the article.)

    You also want to make sure you buy the right kind of travel insurance. Make sure you’re covered for things like cancellation due to weather, medical costs, and medical evacuation (transportation to the nearest hospital, even if you’re in another country).

    Be sure to read up on selecting travel insurance (I liked this article from REI, the outdoor gear people), and make sure that your travel insurance policy will cover you and the things that could possibly go wrong. Some travel insurance policies may not automatically cover weather-related problems or terrorism, so check that out in advance before you buy your policy.

    Also, some credit cards, like the American Card Platinum, automatically have some travel insurance coverage, such as flight cancellation and even rental car insurance, so make sure you know what they cover before you leave. Don’t assume that it will handle everything for you though; you may need additional coverage for other possible problems.

    Have you ever been on a trip where you needed travel insurance? Did you have it? How did that trip go? Give us your advice or words of warning in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Game Freak2600 (Wikimedia Commons, Public GNU Free Documentation License)

    How to Survive Your Summer Vacation

    June 28, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    When I was growing up, my family’s idea of summer vacation was to pile into our 1971 Plymouth Duster, which did not have air conditioning, and take a 4-day camping trip out to visit my parents’ families in Portland, Oregon.

    At the end of each day, my dad would wrestle up a heavy canvas tent that made him sweat and swear more than he did the entire rest of the year. The tent was apparently designed to hold heat in, which was great if you were camping in, say, November in the North Pole. But this was the Southwest (or the Plains, depending on our route) in July and August, which meant the tent was usually 200 degrees hotter than it was outside.

    To cook dinner, my mom would set a pot of stew in the tent for 20 minutes. Immediately afterward, we would go to sleep in our little canvas oven so we could have another day-long drive with the windows down.

    After spending a couple weeks in Oregon, visiting people I barely knew, we would turn around and drive back to Muncie, Indiana, in a little over two days, mostly because my dad was tired of all of us and just wanted the trip to be over.

    Analog thermometer like a clock, temperature hand is on 123 degrees. Terrible way to spend summer vacation.It was not my idea of a good time, and I never understood why we did it. I mean, why couldn’t these people ever fly or drive out to visit us? Why were we always the ones making the drive through America’s Oven to see them?

    Now that I live in Orlando, and just finished a short weekend trip to Atlanta, I realize how much better I have things now than I did back in the early 70s. People may pine for the days when they were young and carefree, but at least air conditioning is standard in most cars these days.

    If you’re going to take a summer driving trip, here are a few things you need to know (and do) before you actually pile into the car.

      1. Get your car fully serviced. Tell them where you’re going and what you’re planning on doing. Your mechanic may suggest a different viscosity of oil if you’re going to be driving in a super-hot climate like, say, Death Valley, on the surface of the sun, or Florida. Make sure your AC is fully functioning too.
      2. Join the AAA Auto Club. The first time your car breaks down, you’ll be glad you’re covered. Plus they’ve got all kinds of discounts at various hotels and restaurants.
      3. Take a few pictures of the family before you leave. This is the happiest you will be for a while. You’ll want to remember this time.
      4. Don’t pack for every day of the trip. We’ve talked about packing lightly before. Take enough clothes to get you halfway through the trip, and do some laundry on your rest day.
      5. Never pack for “just in case.” Don’t take a nice outfit “just in case” you go to a nice restaurant. Either make the reservations so you know in advance, or plan on not going. “Just in case” wastes space.
      6. Don’t take more than one book. I don’t know how many trips I’ve taken where I took three or four books along to read, only to never touch them. Take one book you’ve been dying to read, or buy one on the trip. Better yet, just read on your Kindle. I took two books with me on my trip to Atlanta and ended up buying two others, which I started reading instead.
      7. Stick to the highways. If something happens, you’ll be easier to find (and you can find assistance more easily) if you’re on the highway than if you decide to take the scenic route along some state highways.
      8. Make hotel reservations if you can stick to a schedule, take your chances if you can’t. Depending on how fast you drive and how disciplined you are in sticking to a schedule, you’ll either want to make reservations to make sure you’ve got a place to stay, or just stop when you feel like it and hope you can find a room. If you do the latter, use Google Maps, TripAdvisor, or the iExit app to see which hotels are ahead. Call them directly (not the HQ’s 800 number), and book your room. It also helps to be a member of their frequent traveler club.
      9. Pack a hotel bag. As a dad, there’s nothing worse than unpacking your entire car each night and repacking it each morning. Either pack one travel bag with everyone’s toiletries and nightwear, or make them pack their own, and only allow them to take that bag into the hotel each night. Run a chain and padlock through all of the big suitcases and charge a $10 unloading fee for anyone who needs to get something out of their big suitcase. Otherwise things get lost, left behind, or your stuff expands so it’s bigger than the trunk.
      10. Synchronize your bladders. Another dad rule, and this one may be more important than the hotel bag (if such a thing is possible). But I promise you that this one is critical. I was always frustrated that my family and I could turn a 16-hour drive down to Orlando into a 20-hour odyssey worthy of the Greek poets. I realized it was because we stopped every time the gas tank was half-full, and then again when someone “forgot” to pee. Each break took at least 20 minutes, and we stopped every 2 hours. That added roughly 2.5 hours per trip for non-meal stops. When we stopped when we were down to a quarter tank, we stopped every 2.5 hours and cut almost an hour off the total drive. If you want to get to your destination faster, insist that everyone use the bathroom at every stop, even if they “don’t have to.” (Because they do. They absolutely do. They’re lying if they say otherwise.)

    How do you survive summer vacations? Is it a joy and pleasure, or something that fills you with a sick dread? Share your tips, suggestions, and war stories in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: digitalphotolinds (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

    How to Leave Your Car Behind on Long Vacation

    June 21, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    I recently posted a question on Facebook:

    You’re going to spend three months living and working in another city on a long vacation. What’s the number of miles you would drive versus fly in order to have your own car? That is, anything over X, you’d fly; anything under X, you would drive.

    Of course, because it’s Facebook, and because no one knows how to give a simple answer, there were plenty of longish “it depends” answers.

    I mean, I was just looking for answers like “1,500 miles,” but it’s fine. You know, it’s just fine.

    The Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida. My residency here was like a long vacation.

    The Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. Luckily I had my car with me.

    Here in Orlando, I’m on the board of directors at the Jack Kerouac House, which is near downtown, and about 20 miles from the theme parks. Every quarter, we have one writer-in-residence who lives by themselves in the house for three months. Some of them are close enough that they’re able to drive to Orlando, but others live so far away, they need to fly in and live without a car. Of course, they’re working on their writing, so it’s not like they need to get around the city on a daily basis.

    When I was a resident two years ago, I had already moved to Orlando, so I was able to drive, but our last few residents have flown in from elsewhere, so they were without easily-accessible transportation during their stay.

    That got me to thinking, if you were to go on a long vacation, how would you get around? Having taken long business trips to Europe, as well as longer vacations without readily-accessible transportation, I’ve found a few workarounds for those times I need to be somewhere without my own car. Other times, I’ve been stuck in one place until I could find a way to get where I need.

    If you’re going to take a long vacation that’s going to leave you without your car, here are a few ways to get around.

    First, check out the public transportation situation. If this is going to be a factor in your vacation decision, then don’t go somewhere where you need public transportation. Los Angeles is a widespread, car-necessary city, San Francisco is compact, walkable, and they have decent public transportation. European cities have great public transportation (many people don’t even own cars), but the countryside does not. If you have to choose between destinations, go to the place where they’ve got buses, trams, and subways, rather than depending on a car.

    Second, get a hotel or lodging close to your attractions. For example, if you’re staying at Disney World, it might be cheaper to get a hotel outside the park, but you’re going to spend your savings in transportation just to get into the park, whether you use Uber/Lyft, take a cab, or get a rental car (plus it costs $20 per day to park at Disney World). You’re better off spending the money to get a room on property, and taking the free shuttle or monorail to the parks.

    The same goes for staying in the downtown area of the big cities — hotel parking in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to name a few, can cost between $20 and $60 per night. Depending on where you’re going, that’s a couple of Uber rides per day. And if the weather is right, you can walk or even take a bike share bike, if one is available. Finally, get a hotel that has a shuttle. Some hotels only have airport shuttles, while others have a shuttle that serves as a local cab, driving you up to a couple miles away. Just remember to tip your driver.

    Third, research the availability of ride sharing programs like Uber and Lyft. I prefer Lyft, and usually take it when I’m in a new city. I used it on a trip to Dallas a few months ago, and have used it in other cities. It was a nice alternative to renting a car and finding my way around. However, it can be pretty pricey to catch a ride everywhere, so try to schedule your itinerary so you’re only taking one ride to and from your locations. Also, some cities don’t allow ride sharing, so you can either take a cab or pick another city.

    What’s the bicycle situation? At the Kerouac House, the writers have use of a bicycle to get around. And since most of the cool non-touristy stuff to do is just a few miles from the house, they can just hop on and ride whenever they want. If you’re going to be traveling for a few weeks, look at the price for renting a bicycle.

    Or depending on where you’re staying, you may even consider just buying a bicycle. You can get a serviceable cheap bike for less than $200, which if you compare it to everything you could spend on ride sharing or rental cars, could end up being quite a bit less. Then, when you’re finished, donate it to a local organization or give it to your host.

    You could always just walk. We all need to work out and stay in shape anyway, right? So why not use this opportunity as a way to get in some steps. If you can, just walk the few blocks to your next destination, save a little money, and spend some time outside.

    Whether you’re visiting family and friends for an extended period, or are even moving to a new city for a few months, transportation is going to be a big issue, and can be your most expensive budget item after lodging. Be sure to consider how you’re going to get around when you book your trip.

    How do you travel without your car? Or is that not even an option? Share your tips and suggestions in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Used with permission)

    How to Get Work Done on Vacation

    May 24, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    A couple weeks ago, I talked about how we shouldn’t work on vacation. That we should actually take the days off that are promised to us by our employers and use that time to recharge our batteries, improve our health, and increase our productivity.

    But there will be times that you’re not able to shut yourself completely off while you’re on vacation. It’s not fair and it’s selfish of your employer or your clients to expect you to give up your personal time that is owed to you, but you know what? It’s fine. It’s just. . . fine. It is what it is. This is what you have to work with, so let’s figure out how to make the best of it.

    Here are five ways you can continue to work while you’re on vacation even though it’s a terrible practice and your employer should be ashamed of themselves.

    (Or if you’re like me and you own your own business, then this is your lot in life. But hey, at least it’s what you love to do.)

    A laptop on the beach. Sometimes you may have to work on vacation, so you should at least enjoy yourself.1. Manage expectations early Let people know you’re going on vacation. Set your email auto-responder with a vacation message a week before you leave. This way, people will know you won’t be working 8 – 10 hours a day. Of course, you’ll need to get a lot of work done in advance, but that should free you up enough to only deal with the smaller tasks that pop up.

    2. Get into the habit of only checking emails one or two times a day. This is something I’m still working on myself. I try to only check emails in the morning, after lunch, and before 5:00. If I spend all my time dealing with emails like electronic Whack-a-Mole, I won’t actually get any work done. I’m more productive if I only do email a few times a day than if I deal with it all the time. If people get used to me doing it this way, then I can still take the bulk of the day off and deal with things in the morning or evening.

    Also, set your auto-responder months in advance to tell people that this is how you work so they don’t get frustrated that you take four hours to respond. This way, you can go out and see some sights without needing to check your email every 20 minutes or worry that you’re going to miss something important. Then, just respond to emails in the morning or at at night.

    3. Put all your important documents, reports, spreadsheets in the cloud.
    I use Google Drive for my cloud work because I can still access it with an iPad and Bluetooth keyboard. It may not be as fast as a laptop, but if I need to write an article or retrieve some information, I can leave my laptop at home and still function, albeit quite a bit slower. This way, I can deal with emergencies or get some work done during unexpected free time.

    4. Figure out how to work with the lightest rig possible
    By that, I mean learn how to work with a tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard. I do this anyway
    as a backup method in case my computer dies. (I had to do it at the end of April, in fact.) But I also noticed that when I carried my laptop and keyboard, my Tpro Bold II backpack was significantly lighter than when I had my four-pound laptop in it. If you’re worried about keeping your luggage light on your next vacation, this might be a way to go. Plus it keeps your laptop safe at home where it’s not at risk of getting stolen or hacked on a rogue wifi system.

    5. See if you can take a longer vacation in exchange for working
    Try is to extend your vacation in exchange for being able to work while you’re on it. This could be a compromise with your employer or with your family — I made them a deal that we could take two-week vacations to Florida if I could work a couple days each week, and even a couple hours early in the morning.

    We did that for three years before we finally moved here, and it was a nice little arrangement. I worked a couple hours in the morning, a couple at night, and used our rest day to find a coffee shop and work for the day, all using the steps I described above. I still had a lot to catch up on when I got back, but it helped me deal with critical deadlines and deal with problems that arose, and I still got to enjoy some time away from home and the 8- and 10-hour workdays.

    How do you work when you’re on vacation? Do you use any special tech or apps to get things done? Share your suggestions and ideas in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Wojciech Kowalski (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

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