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.

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 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 Make Vacation Costs Less Painful

March 29, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Before we moved to Florida two years ago, my family of five took an annual vacation down to Orlando every year for six years. It wasn’t always a Disney World trip, but it was a chance to get a break from the cold and snow of Indiana and to bask in the warmth of Central Florida.

And we didn’t always have the money for an expensive trip, but we were certainly able to have a fun time, all without breaking the bank or putting ourselves in terrible debt. It started with a little pre-planning the year before, which lightened the load. Here’s how we did it.

1. Driving is Cheaper than Flying

It may be a huge pain, but we would drive from Indianapolis to Orlando in about 20 hours. For a while, we did it in a single day, which was awful. After a while, we switched to two days which was fine, but usually added $250 to the trip, including the hotel nights and extra meals.

Still, it certainly beats five tickets at $400 apiece (although I certainly envy the two-hour flight time). We could drive 1,000 miles, visit the grocery store for breakfast and lunch, and then hit a decent restaurant for dinner, all for around $150. If we wanted to stop in a hotel, we would stay at the Holiday Inn Express near Macon, Georgia. We weren’t going for comfort and luxury there. We wanted something clean, comfortable, and safe. All told, the 2-day trip cost between $250 –$300 each way, and was still cheaper than flying. Plus we had our car once we were in town.

2. Buy gift cards throughout the year

Epcot in Orlando, Florida during the Flower and Garden Festival in May. One of my favorite vacations.

Epcot during the Flower and Garden Festival in May

One strategy we had to cut travel costs was to buy gift cards during the year and keep them in an envelope. My wife would buy $25 gift cards for Shell gas or Outback restaurant once a month. We had traveled enough times on this route that we knew where to stop to use them.

While it didn’t save us any money, we didn’t have to come up with a fistful of cash all at once just to cover the drive. By getting the gift cards, we were able to sock away some savings without actually putting the money in a savings account. (We tried that a couple times, but always had some emergency or other that required us to “borrow” from the savings and never put it back.)

3. Plan your activities, book ahead when possible

If you’re watching your vacation budget carefully, this is where you have to be hard-nosed. You will be sorely tempted to “just this once” add a new activity to your itinerary. It could be a tour or show, or some other amazing attraction that caught your eye, but it inflates your total costs. It’s worse if you show up without any plans at all, because you won’t really keep track of what you’re spending, and you can easily go overboard.

Instead, schedule out your activities and book the tickets in advance throughout the year. That way, you don’t have to cough up the cash right at that moment (see #2 above). Then, when temptation rears its ugly head, you have to stick to the schedule, and either refuse to be tempted or be willing to give up another activity (or activities) so you can pay for the new one. And if you’ve already bought the tickets, you’ll be even less tempted than before.

4. Plan for rest days

There’s a lot of truth to the old joke of “needing a vacation from our vacation.” When we would return home from Orlando, we would be exhausted, and not just because we drove 20 hours straight. We had spent days and days walking around the theme parks, visiting friends, or popping over to the beach for a day. We were exhausted. Plus, it’s expensive to do something every day.

We finally got smart and started blocking in rest days into our schedule. Those were the days we stayed around the rental house, spent time in the pool, or visited different parts of the city. We didn’t have anywhere to be, and best of all, we didn’t have to spend any money.

Even that one day of not doing anything gave us a chance to sleep in, take a nap, or just recover from the drive and last few days of activity. It also helped us reduce our costs, because we were just able to eat at home instead of going out.

How do you reduce your vacation costs without reducing the enjoyment? Do you have any cost-saving measures you can recommend? If you’ve got any tips, suggestions, or ideas, please share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers, used with permission

How to Travel Comfortably if You’re, um, Bigger

March 15, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m not a small guy. I’m 6′ 2″ and I weigh “I-buy-XXL-shirts” pounds. That means I’m taller than average and heavier than average, which makes it a bit difficult to travel comfortably. In fact, just last week, I flew from Orlando to Indianapolis and back again in 48 hours, and then drove to Tampa as soon as I landed. I’ll also be flying to Dallas next month and may be on a plane a couple more times this year. And trying to travel comfortably on the plane isn’t always easy.

If I want to be comfortable in my travels, there are a few things I do to ensure it’s not unpleasant.

Fly Economy Plus or better

I’m tall enough that if I ride in regular economy, my knees are always jammed up against the seat in front of me, so I always pay a little extra for the Economy Plus seating. The legroom is a little more,, and that alone is worth the extra costs. Plus, I’ve noticed that the seatbelts are a little longer, which means they fit better and I don’t crush my bladder whenever I fasten my seatbelt.

And as an Economy Plus member, I can always board right after their top priority club members and first class passengers, which means I can always get a spot for my bag in the overhead bin.

If you’re several inches taller than me, you can spring for an exit row seat or a first class seat. And if you’re wider than me, you may either have to buy a second seat (which some airlines require), or upgrade to business or first class. But give Economy Plus a try if you need just a few inches to spare.

Drive 7 hours or less instead of flying

The author at a reading in Pensacola, Florida. I try to travel comfortably whenever I have to go anywhere.

Yours truly reading humor at the Foo Foo Festival in Pensacola, Florida. We drove 8 hours to get there, because it was just easier and more comfortable.

When I lived in Indianapolis, I could get to Chicago in 3 hours, Nashville in 5, and Madison, Wisconsin in 7. Since a regular plane trip from Indianapolis to most places would take 6 hours from my house to my hotel, I always drove my car for any road trip that I could do in six or seven hours.

That’s because a normal flight, from door to door, took six hours. If I left my house at 6:00 am, I could drive 45 minutes to the airport, pay for parking, get there two hours early, fly for an hour, get a rental car, and drive 45 minutes to my hotel. And I would get there around noon.

Or I could drive my car round trip for the price of four tanks of gas. I would leave my house at 6:00 am, and get to the hotel by noon. I saved a lot of money, I took the same amount of time, but I was also more comfortable and had the use of my car to boot. (If I was going to be somewhere for several days, but it was a 7 or 8 hour car trip, I would still drive so I wouldn’t need to rent a car.)

Be confident

This is a tough one. On one of my legs up to Indianapolis last week, my seatbelt was 4 inches too short. Never mind that every other belt on every other flight was just fine. Airlines just seem to put random length seat belts on all their seats, although it’s worse in economy seating. Economy Plus seatbelts seem to be bit longer and I rarely find one that’s too short, which is another reason I pay for the upgrade.

But that wasn’t true in this case; this time, the belt was just a few inches too short, so I had to ask for a lap belt extension.

I didn’t like doing it, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But I’ve been able to fit every other flight I’ve been on, plus I’ve lost 20 pounds, so I knew it wasn’t me.

I decided confidence was the key to surviving this with my dignity intact. I held my head up high, looked the flight attendant square in the eye, and very quietly whispered, “Can I have a belt extension please?”

Trust me, it sucked. Like I had to admit I was too big to fly like a normal person. But the alternative was to be completely unsafe and embarrassed if the flight attendant publicly called me out for not fastening my seat belt. Plus I could have easily been hurt if we hit some major turbulence. So I asked for the extension and I was able to fly comfortably.

Traveling is difficult enough already, but it’s even more difficult when you need more room than other people. So you have three choices, be extremely uncomfortable, pay for the extra room, or never go anywhere. I personally like to see the world, but I don’t want to be uncomfortable, so I’ll drive or pay for upgrades whenever I travel.

And I’ll be happy with who I am and how I look, and if other people don’t like it, that’s tough.

Do you do anything special to ensure you travel comfortably? Do you have any tips for us? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (used with permission)

Chain Hotels versus B&Bs versus Airbnb

February 22, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I have mixed feelings about bed and breakfasts (B&Bs). The best B&B experience I ever had was at the Kintner House Hotel in Corydon, Indiana. Corydon is notable for being the site of one of only two Civil War battles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Also, it was Indiana’s first state capital. So the place was pretty special to me as an Indiana history buff.

I stayed there a few times over the years, while traveling on business, and had my favorite room, the Trunk Room. The staff even got to know me a bit and remembered me each time I visited.

Kintner House Inn, a normal B&B. Not available on Airbnb (I checked).

The Kintner House Inn in Corydon, IN

I also had a terrible B&B experience once when my wife and I traveled to Indianapolis for a wedding one August and realized the B&B in question was someone’s spare guest room in a 1940s ranch-style bungalow. The hostess kept the house too warm, and we had a secret back-and-forth fight over the AC setting. I would bump it down to 74, and she would bump it back up to 78. We did this at least two times during the night, but we never spoke of it over breakfast the next morning.

Compare that to the good luck I’ve had with chain hotels. When I stay at one of my favorite hotel chains — usually Holiday Inn, sometimes a Hampton Inn — I can always count on an identical experience free of any surprises or unexpected quirks.

On the other hand, that’s the downside of staying at chain hotels. It’s an identical experience free of any surprises or unexpected quirks.

And my limited Airbnb experience has been primarily positive. I’ve always rented an entire house so I can avoid my negative B&B experience, and the houses have always been clean, safe, and in decent neighborhoods. It’s a nice compromise, although my wife isn’t a fan.

If you’re trying to decide which option you want on your next family vacation, here are a few things to consider before you book your rooms for your vacation.

Chain Hotels

If you’re looking for a way to save money, a chain hotel may be your best bet. Depending on where you’re going, nights can be anywhere from $95 to $300 or more (especially in big cities near major event venues, e.g. Manhattan, downtown Chicago). The more they cost, the nicer the rooms. And there’s something great about feeling like a VIP when you step into a decked-out high-rise room.

You can also earn loyalty points, which can reduce the costs of future stays, or give you other rewards. You can earn these points by flying specific airlines or even dining at certain restaurants.

And like I said earlier, barring an unusual situation, you can rely on the kind of experience you’re going to get at a chain hotel. No surprises, no unusual sleeping arrangements, no weird room layouts. Many of them serve breakfast — my son loves the breakfast buffets at the Hampton Inn — so it’s a way to save a little money on food if you’re on a road trip.

At the same time, there’s something special about specialty boutique hotels, like The Galt House in Louisville, Colcord Hotel in Oklahoma City, or 21C hotels. They may not have loyalty programs, but they’re quite fancy and still affordable. I can’t recommend 21C enough if you want an interesting, but artistic hotel stay.

Bed & Breakfasts

I’ve stayed at more than a few B&Bs, and my one terrible experience notwithstanding, I’ve always enjoyed them. These are usually old historic houses in small towns or quiet neighborhoods, and they serve a nice little breakfast in the morning.

The one downside is that they’re not always ideal for families, especially if you have small kids. And they’re usually destinations, not stop off points like a hotel. They’re geared more toward the quiet weekend away from the mad rush of the city and constant nagging of social media and television.

The times my wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast, it was strictly to relax, sleep in, and enjoy the town we were visiting. But we never took our kids because they weren’t made for little children, they didn’t have rollaway beds or cribs, and a lot of them didn’t have televisions or ways of entertaining little ones. At least the ones we visited were made this way, and we chose them intentionally for that reason. If you want a place to take your younger kids, check with the owner before you book your room so you’re not disappointed. Some B&Bs (and Airbnbs) even have “no children” rules, so be sure to check.

Airbnb

I appreciate Airbnb when I travel to a city where I’ll be staying for several days, but want something cheaper than a good hotel. You can get an entire house to yourself, or you can get a single guest room inside someone’s house, and I’ve always managed to get something for less than $120 per night. My wife took my oldest daughter to New York City for her 18th birthday, and they stayed in someone’s room in their apartment, and said it was a great experience.

I took the same daughter to Nashville, Tennessee for a conference and got the upper floor of a house (the owners lived in the lower level) in an east side neighborhood, just a few miles from where I needed to be. What was really great was all the hotels were sold out because it was the Country Music Awards, and no one had scooped up this house. It cost less than most of the hotels ($90/night versus $300) and quite a bit closer to where I needed to be.

An Airbnb is an ideal setup if you have a carload of kids and want to be able to spread out, but don’t want to be crammed into a single hotel room. You usually get cable television and wifi, there are plenty of beds and bedrooms (assuming you planned properly), and best of all, you get to control the house’s AC and heat.

Ultimately your sleeping arrangement comes down to your own personal preferences, but for the most part, I like the hotel option first, Airbnb second, and a regular bed and breakfast third. But part of that is because I’m a bit competitive, and like accumulating points at the hotels. However, if you want to stay at an Airbnb, they do have a point-sharing loyalty arrangement with Delta Airlines now. Just visit DeltaAirbnb.com and book your room through that site, and you can earn Delta SkyMiles.

Where would you stay? Which do you prefer? Do you have a go-to lodging choice, or do you pick it based on your own travel plans? Share your recommendations in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Take an Accessible Vacation: How to Travel with a Wheelchair or Scooter

February 8, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Living in the Land of the Mouse and enjoying all the parks, you quickly realize how many people need assistance or have mobility issues when they travel. Whether it’s someone who walks with a cane or walking stick, someone who needs some extra time getting around, or someone who uses a wheelchair or scooter just to get through their day-to-day.

Sylvia Longmire in Rome, taking her own accessible vacation

Sylvia in Rome, Italy on her Pride Mobility scooter

My good friend, Sylvia Longmire, brought this all home for me when she became an accessible travel agent — that is, someone who specializes in arranging travel for people with mobility issues. Sylvia has MS and uses a mobility scooter. And she travels like a maniac, jetting from international locale to international locale. Last year, she was in Ireland, Denmark, Greece, and The Netherlands, all on her scooter (or a rented wheelchair), so if anyone knows about finding and booking accessibility travel, it’s her.

If you or a family member has mobility and accessibility issues, there are plenty of ways to get around by plane, train, or automobile, and to get into almost any attraction, hotel, or restaurant you’d like. A lot of it depends on what kind of accommodations you need, and whether you do your research and ask the right questions beforehand.

Another thing to keep in mind, Sylvia says, is that while the United States has the Americans with Disabilities Act to improve wheelchair access in public places, it’s not always perfect. But countries like the UK, Australia, and Germany have similar laws, so there are options if you’d like to travel outside the US.

So if you have any kind of disability, but still want to travel, you can always do it yourself, but I recommend using a travel agent like Sylvia because she knows what to look for and what kinds of questions to ask the various places you’ll be visiting and hotels you’ll be staying at. Still, if you want to do it yourself, here are the questions you need to answer before you go.

“Does your hotel have a wheelchair friendly room?” This means a door wide enough to accommodate a chair, space enough to roll around, and in some cases, a roll-in shower with a fold-down seat. I’ve heard plenty of stories from Sylvia where she asked the hotel clerk if they had accessible rooms, only to find out that only meant they had a couple bars in the shower and near the toilet. Ask the hotel manager if you really want to be sure. (And don’t be afraid to ask for a photo of the facilities.)

“Are there wheelchairs available for rent at my destination?”
There are plenty of stories about someone’s primary (or only) wheelchair getting damaged on a flight, rendering it unusable. While you don’t need to rent a chair every time you travel, you should at least make sure there’s a backup option at your destination. Keep their number in your phone in case the need comes up.

“Does your attraction have a wheelchair ramp or other options?”
Visiting the beach doesn’t have to mean sitting back on the road looking out at the ocean while everyone else is out on the sand. There are special wheelchairs with fat tires that can roll out on the beach (imagine if a wheelchair and a dune buggy had a baby), and wheelchair mats called Mobi-Mats, which are roll-up mats that can be unrolled on the sand and allow wheelchair users to get right out on the beach.

Make a list of all the places you want to visit and contact each of them to ask if they have a wheelchair ramp and/or elevator to get to other levels. Most museums, concert venues, theaters, restaurants, ballparks, and other attractions have access and special seating (when needed), but you still want to call and make sure. Again, if you’re not sure, ask. Call a couple times if you have to, because you may get contradicting information.

What are my best options?

Sylvia on a Celebrity Cruise on Formal Night, part of another accessible vacation

Sylvia on a Celebrity Cruise on Formal Night

Cruise ships are usually a good option, because many of them cater to older adults who are already dealing with mobility issues. (Sylvia loves cruises because they’re the easiest ways for wheelchair users to see the world.) The ships are built to be wheelchair friendly, have wider doors, large public spaces, and room between the tables and chairs in the dining room. Still, make sure you ask the cruise ship booking agent about any special arrangements you need to make.

Theme parks are also usually a great bet, especially the bigger ones. From what I’ve seen, Disney World and Universal Orlando are both very accessible and they have special cars, elevators, and ramps for people with mobility issues. They also rent scooters at each park.

Bottom line: if you have a disability and you want to travel, there’s a way to do it. If you’re not sure how you’re going to get it done, you can do a ton of research or you can call a travel agent and ask them for some help.

Do you have accessibility or mobility issues to consider when you travel and take vacations? If you’ve got any tips, suggestions, or ideas, please share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Sylvia Longmire (SpinTheGlobe.net, Used with permission)

Try the Local, State, or Regional Foods on Your Next Trip

January 25, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Certain cities, states, and regions are known for a particular dishes or foods, and if you want the real thing, you may only find it when you’re actually in that area, even if it’s offered in other parts of the country.

For example, every New Yorker insists that New York style pizza is only good when it’s made and served in New York. New York style pizza is not the same thing in North Carolina, North Dakota, or Nevada. That only means it’s thin, but it doesn’t taste the same. At least, so the New Yorkers tell me.

“It’s the water!” they declare, although I’ve often heard it pronounced as “wooder” as well. They say the same thing about “real New York bagels.” I have to say, there’s something to what they’re telling me. I’ve been to New York, and I’ve had New York style pizza in Florida and Indiana, and there’s a big difference.

The South is known for its barbecue, although the sauces and meats may vary from state to state. In most of the South, they prefer barbecuing pulled pork, w

Chicago Dog - One of the great regional foods out of the Chicagoland area

This is a Chicago style hot dog — tomatoes, white onions, neon green sweet relish, sport peppers, mustard, a pickle, and celery salt. BUT NO KETCHUP!

hile in Kansas City, it’s ribs, and in Texas, they prefer beef brisket.

The sauces have a regional flavor as well. For example, South Carolina leans toward a mustard-based sauce, while Georgia goes for a more tomato-based one. And in the city of Savannah, where the two cultures meet, you can find a heavenly sauce that combines the best of both worlds. (I’ve made it a few times myself, and it’s amazing.)

In my old home state of Indiana, we have our official state sandwich and official state pie — the state legislature voted on it and everything — the breaded pork tenderloin and the Wick’s sugar cream pie.

I’ve only ever seen the breaded pork tenderloin in Indiana and Iowa, as well as a Florida restaurant opened by a friend and former Hoosier, but I haven’t found the sugar cream pie (also called an old-fashioned cream pie) outside my home state. If anyone has a lead where I can find some, other than mail order, let me know. I’m dying for a slice of Indiana heaven!

Chicago, New York, and Atlanta are all known for their signature hot dogs (visit The Varsity as you’re driving through Atlanta on I-75), and each city will fight over whose dog is superior. My favorite is the Chicago Dog, but the Southern slaw dog — a Varsity favorite — is a close second. (Despite New York’s claims on the best pizza, I don’t think they can claim superiority for their ketchup-only red hots.)

And I can get the best hot dogs in all of Florida, as Orlando’s own Hot Dog Heaven was recently named best in the entire state! (It’s just 14 miles from my house, and I can be there in 25 minutes.)

Nashville, Tennessee is no slouch in the hot dog department either though. While I haven’t been able to partake — I was in Nashville last year and I forgot to try them — one of the food travel programs devoted an entire 30 minutes to the Music City’s hot dog’s, and they’re spoiled for choices.

Of course, every major city with a meat packing history is going to lay claim to some of the best steaks. Chicago, Kansas City, and Dallas all boast the best steaks in the country, but there are several great steak places elsewhere (a tip of the hat to my favorite, St. Elmo’s in Indianapolis). And since the best steaks are usually dry aged, don’t let anyone try to BS you about the “freshness” of steaks. Unlike fish, a good steak should be aged for several days, which means you can find a good one in nearly any major city in the country.

But for a real treat, you have to try a cook-your-own steakhouse at least once. I loved Alexander’s Steakhouse in Bloomington, Illinois, although there are several around the country. Other hidden gems are the Beef House Restaurant in Covington, Indiana and The Iowa Beef Steak House in Des Moines, Iowa.

Speaking of fish, I have two rules I live by when it comes to seafood.

  1. I don’t care where you live, never eat gas station sushi. (I don’t have to explain this, do I?)
  2. Never order the fish in a fancy restaurant on a Monday. As Anthony Bourdain explains in Kitchen Confidential, fish is only fresh in most restaurants on Fridays and Tuesdays. This is why you get a lot of seafood salad specials on Mondays and Thursdays; the fish is still acceptable to eat, but it’s starting to taste a little, well, fishy by then.

And while you can get fresh fish nearly anywhere, thanks to high-speed deliveries — fish caught Thursday shows up in the restaurants on Friday, less than 24 hours later — I have gotten to be quite the seafood snob these days.

When my family and I want truly fresh seafood, we’ll head to Melbourne, Florida or even St. Augustine, and eat in one of the small restaurants on the water. There are a few that offer daily specials, which is whatever the local fishermen brought in that morning.

When you travel, take some time to pick a few restaurants in advance. Don’t just show up at the hotel and ask the front desk clerk for a nearby recommendation. That’s how you get stuck in a national chain restaurant serving boil-in-a-bag food.

Ask some locals for their recommendations, or see if the city has a weekly alternative newspaper, which is geared toward locals, and reviews their best local restaurants.

Or before you go, look online, find out what that city or state is best known for, and then check Yelp, Google Maps, or Trip Advisor to see who’s got the best of whatever the local delicacy is. Call ahead and make reservations before you leave town to ensure you get a seat.

Finally, try to visit the restaurant early enough during your trip that if you decide to go back or find someone else’s version of the same dish, you can better immerse yourself in the local dining experience.

What are some of your favorite regional foods? I’ve only been to California and Oregon a few times, so I don’t know what their best known dishes are, other than wine and craft beer. What do you recommend for the next time I’m in the City of Roses? Share your favorites and recommendations in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Arnold Inuyaki (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)

Five Travel Memoirs to Scratch That Road Trip Itch

December 14, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

While I’m not a roving nomad like, say, Nomadic Matt, who has spent several years traveling the globe, I have put a lot of miles on my car and on my feet. And there’s nothing better than a good travel memoir to stir up those wanderlust feelings and make me start thinking about the other end of the road.

Sometimes reading the book is enough to scratch the itch, and at other times, reading them only makes me want to throw some shirts into a bag and drive to visit a friend for a few days. But despite being a travel writer for several years, I’m not a fan of the guidebook style of writing, telling you where to go, where to stay, or the best times to visit the sights.

I prefer travel memoirs, stories about why the author did the things they did or what they felt when they saw what they saw. I’m more interested in the story of the journey than the cost of the destination.

So here are my five favorite travel/road trip memoirs that I strongly recommend any traveler reads before their next big trip, whether it’s a minivan road trip to Disneyland or a 16-hour flight halfway around the world. These are the five books that hold a special place of honor on my shelves and I return to whenever I’m feeling cooped up at home.

Erik Deckers' favorite travel memoirs

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig). My first encounter with this book was during my Intro to Philosophy class in college, and it became a constant in my life. I still own the original copy I bought back in 1985, although I purchased another copy to read since the original is about ready to disintegrate. A novel within a novel within a philosophical treatise, ZAMM is the pursuit of the definition of Quality as a philosophical construct, a flashback journey where the hero seeks his own answers and sanity, and a motorcycle road trip for a father and his young son. And all three stories collide together in a way that makes this a novel of a generation. I called it “my generation’s On The Road” more than once,” and it’s a title well-deserved.
  2. The Sun Also Rises. (Ernest Hemingway). One of the first travel memoirs I ever truly loved, Hemingway’s 1926 novel about a group of American and English tourists who travel around Spain to watch bullfighting and the famed running of the bulls made me wish for the simple life of sitting in cafes and day drinking. Of course, that’s never been anything I’ve ever aspired to — the best I can do is sit in a coffee shop and get jittery on lattes — but the story made me dream about how exciting living in a foreign land for several months could be. If you want a glimpse into what Gertrude Stein labeled “The Lost Generation,” start with Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical look at his 1925 travels in Spain.
  3. On The Road and Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac). I cheated and picked two books since they’re both semi-autobiographical about the author. On The Road is about Sal Paradise (Jack) and his best pal, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy), and their journey across the country in search of meaning, poetry, and a good conversation. Dharma Bums is about Ray Smith (Jack) and his best pal, Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), as they climb a mountain in search of meaning, poetry, and the Buddha. Jack wrote Dharma Bums at a little house in College Park, Orlando, while he waited for On The Road to be published. That house later became the Kerouac House writers residency, where I was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence.
  4. Motorcycles I Have Loved: A Memoir (Lily Brooks-Dalton). When I first heard that a 20-something had written a memoir, I wondered what exactly it was that a 20-something could teach anyone about life. Then I read it and all was made clear: a lot. Lily Brooks-Dalton, fellow Kerouac House writer-in-residence, made me want to ride motorcycles in a way that only Robert Pirsig ever did. She details her first efforts at riding and then buying a motorcycle, learning how it handled, and the problems she encountered when she bought one that was too big for her. It helped me understand that owning a motorcycle is more about feeling comfortable on what you’re riding, not horsepower and loud engines. If it wasn’t for a promise I made my favorite uncle when I was 8, I’d own a motorcycle right now, and Lily would be the reason I did.
  5. The Bruno, Chief Of Police series (Martin Walker). While not technically travel memoirs — in fact, it’s a French murder mystery series — author Martin Walker paints such a lovely picture of the Perigord region of France that every time I read one of his books, I want to go there in the worst way. Bruno Courreges is the chief of police in the fictional town of St. Denis where he knows everyone, plays rugby and tennis, hunts and grows his own vegetables, at least when he’s not solving murders with international implications. Walker’s descriptions of the French countryside, as well as Bruno’s own gourmet cooking creations, makes me want to spend six months living in France as Bruno does. Of all these books I’ve listed, nothing gives me the travel itch more than a new Bruno mystery.

What are some of your favorite travel memoirs? Do you have any that inspire you to leave the house, or any that you return to whenever you want to remember a favorite place? Share some of your favorite books in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

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