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 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 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)

    Take a Proper Vacation Away From Work

    May 10, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    If you’re like most Americans, you don’t actually stop working to take a real vacation. According to a 2017 Forbes article, only 23% of us actually take all of our vacation days. The rest of us only take a little more than half of our eligible days.

    And to make matters worse, two-thirds of us actually do work while we’re on vacation.

    Stop doing that!

    Photo of a laptop on a towel at the beach. This would be the ideal bleisure working vacation!Seriously, people. We are the hardest working, least-vacationing country in the developed world. And we’re so scared of being replaced or laid off that we don’t take the days off that are actually owed to us. Many of us are promised two weeks off of work with full pay, and we don’t take it, thus robbing ourselves of a chance to relax and unwind and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

    Some people bank their vacation days so they have a cushion in case they get laid off or fired. Other people are worried that they’re too indispensable. One guy, Jake, said in the Forbes article:

    I feel incredibly lucky to lead excellent and competent groups of people, but I don’t ever want to put those I manage in a position where my prolonged absence hinders their day-to-day or makes their lives more difficult.

    Let me tell you, if your prolonged absence hinders your staff’s day-to-day lives, you’re a bad manager. Your job is to empower your staff and remove any barriers so they can do their best work. And if your absence hinders their day-to-day work, you haven’t actually empowered them, you’re micromanaging them, and thus, holding them back.

    It’s worse for entrepreneurs like me. I’m in a service business that more or less requires me to do stuff nearly every day. I don’t have to go to unnecessary and pointless meetings or any of that corporate nonsense. But I have to send out social media updates and publish articles and do things in real time, or at least on a particular day.

    Even so, I still manage to take days off where I don’t do any work. Or I’ll schedule some things that morning and I’m out the door in an hour, visiting one of the theme parks or heading to the beach. Entrepreneurs are terrible at taking time off, so I fight for every day I can get.

    We need those days off just to decompress, de-stress, and free our minds of all the clutter and nonsense we have to put up with the other 50 weeks out of the year. Vacations are not only beneficial to your health, including reducing heart disease, and they improve your productivity.

    So here are five things you can do to put your mind at ease while you shut your laptop, turn off your phone, and go have fun.

    1. Understand this: No one will die if you take some time off. I mean, if you’re a doctor or paramedic, that might actually happen if you skip a shift. But if you make arrangements first, your colleagues will cover you. As for the rest of you, unless you’re working on a project that’s worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, you can sneak out for a few days. Your colleagues functioned just fine before you entered their lives, and they’ll be fine when you’re gone. So they can handle it if you take five days out of the office and never check in.

    2. Name an emergency backup in your out of office email reply. In your email auto-response, say that you’re completely cut off for a week, and if there’s an actual emergency, they should contact one of your colleagues. Give their email and phone number. I’ll bet that no one calls them. And if they do, empower your colleague to make a decision on your behalf. Then, return the favor the next time he or she goes on vacation.

    3. Take care of all important deadlines before you go. Push the rest off until a week after you get back. Really, how important is your monthly TPS report? Will the company grind to a halt if you don’t turn it in? Probably not. But if you think it will, or if you could get yelled at for being late, send it in a little early. For everything else, just email those people, let them know when you’ll have their deliverables, and put it out of your mind for a week.

    4. Leave your phone in the hotel room. Otherwise, you’ll check your email 18 times a day because you want to get a head start. Or people will call you for help. Or you’ll get roped into a conference call. Or someone will need “just one teeny little thing.” If you have to check your email, only do it once at night after you get back to your room.

    5. Add an extra day for catch-up time. If you’re going to be gone for a week, block out an extra day in your schedule. Tell people you won’t get back until Tuesday. Then, go to the office and use that free day to catch up on all the emails in your inbox — no meetings, no phone calls, nothing that requires you to do anything except plow through all the junk that accumulated while you were away.

    There are very few people who are actually, truly indispensable in their jobs. The rest of the company will run just fine without you. People will understand that you need to take some time off, and hopefully, they’ll leave you alone while you try to relax and spend time with your family. After all, the whole reason we work is so we can care for our families and enjoy our time with them. Your colleagues and clients should respect that and let you have your personal time.

    And if they don’t, pester them mercilessly on their own vacation until they get the hint and promise to leave you alone.

    How do you shut yourself down from work? Do you take your days off, or do you try to sneak in some work while you’re away? Share your tips and suggestions in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Laura Hoffman (Flickr, Creative Commons)

    How to Easily Manage Your Vacation Photos

    April 26, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    You want to capture all the great memories from your vacation: the sights you saw, the people you met, the places you ate at. The problem is, thanks to today’s digital cameras and smartphones, you can take literally hundreds of photos over a single week and not know what to do with them all when you’re done.

    I had the same problem a few years ago. I used to take a lot of photos and then dump them on my laptop and forget about them for a year until I needed a particular one. Then I would have to wade through them all to find the one I wanted.

    Finally, I got smart and developed a quick photo management process that helps me store and find my photos so I can easily find them later. Here are five ways you can easily manage your own vacation photos (or any photos you take).

    1. Delete unwanted photos right away

    Vacation photo of Epcot during the Flower and Garden Festival in May. One of my favorite times to visit.

    Epcot during the Flower and Garden Festival in May 2017

    One of the traps I’ve fallen into with a digital camera and a camera phone is that I’m less discerning about what I take and what I keep. I’m old enough to have used a film camera, and when it cost several dollars to get a roll of 24 exposures developed, you had to be more selective of the photos you took.

    Compare that to when I was watching the Electric Light Parade at Magic Kingdom a few years ago and I snapped over 200 photos in 30 minutes, or more than 300 photos at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when I would cover the Indianapolis 500 for my blog. I would take 3, 4, and even 5 photos of the same float/car/person, in case one of them didn’t turn out, and I ended up keeping them all.

    So instead, I got into the habit of deleting photos after I took them, when we sat down after a break, or even at the end of the day when I was waiting for my turn in the shower.

    Rather than save up a couple thousand digital photos of your trip to Europe, take a few minutes once or twice a day and delete the photos you didn’t like or where someone blinked or the thing you wanted is too small. Then, when you’re sorting through your photos later, you don’t have so many to deal with, and the remaining four tasks are less daunting.

    2. Save your photos to the cloud.

    I am a big fan of Dropbox and use it for photo storage, although any cloud storage service will work. You can use Google Drive, Apple iCloud, or even Google Photos (formerly Picasa).

    I pay for Dropbox’s 1TB storage plan (1 terabyte = 1,024 GB), so I set up my laptop to upload my photos whenever I plug in my phone or digital camera. And every few months, I’ll go through those photos, examine them again more closely, delete any that I don’t want, and rename them and date them — Electric Light Parade 037, 2-12-15 — so I know what they are at a glance. It sure beats trying to figure out what IMG_1482 was supposed to be.

    3. Upload photos only on wifi

    Try to upload your photos at night when you’re back into the hotel and on the wifi, rather than using your cellular data to do it during the day. While you can certainly have all your photos automatically upload as you take them, you have two issues: 1) you’re uploading every photo you take, including the bad ones, which will chew up your cellular data, and 2) this will run down your battery much faster.

    And deleting the photos you don’t want first will also save your storage space, especially if you’re not paying for additional storage space on Dropbox or Google Drive.

    4. Centralize your family photos

    Depending on how many smartphone users you have, it might be a nice idea to combine your family photos and save them to an album that everyone can access. Whether it’s Google Photos, Instagram, or even Facebook, store the photos and share the link with everyone you’d like to see them.

    You can start this by sharing your cloud storage drive (i.e. sharing the Dropbox photo with everyone. Ask everyone to upload their own photos to the drive, and make sure everyone has access.

    If you grew up in a family where your folks would invite friends over to see slides of their vacation, you can relive those painful fun experiences again by broadcasting your photos through your TV, especially if you have Apple TV and use Apple’s iCloud, or Google Chromecast and Google Photos. Just make sure you have a comfy couch.

    5. Never EVER post vacation photos while you’re on vacation!

    I know you want all your friends to see pictures of your feet at the beach or your feet at the swimming pool, but that’s not very safe. For one thing, it tells anyone who sees your photos that you’re not at home. You don’t want to give potential thieves any indication that you’re away, so don’t share vacation photos while you’re on vacation.

    Instead, wait until you get home and post them then. You can say things like “Here’s where we were last week” and people will still get the same enjoyment out of them that they would have a week earlier.

    I never used to be a big photo taker when I was growing up. But thanks to digital cameras and smartphones, it’s not a problem to snap a quick pic to capture a memory. In fact, I seem to be making up for lost time, taking several hundred pictures every year. After spending many hours trying to sort through an entire year’s worth of photos, I started dealing with them in batches, especially on vacation and Disney visits, as a way to reduce my total workload, and came up with this process. Give it a try the next time you go on vacation and see if you can better manage your on vacation photos.

    How do you deal with your vacation photos? Do you have any suggestions or favorite techniques? Share them with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Erik Deckers, used with permission

    Bleisure Travel: Turn Your Next Business Trip into a Vacation

    April 12, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    I’m hearing the term bleisure a lot more these days, and it bugs me.

    Not the concept, the word. While I appreciate a good portmanteau — business + leisure — this is one of the sillier ones, sort of like “Bennifer” or “Brangelina.” Maybe I just hate ‘B’ portmanteaus.

    But my nose-wrinkling aside, I do love the concept of combining business travel and vacation, especially for families. It’s a great way to save some money on vacation, as well as a way for families to spend a little more time together that would otherwise be interrupted by regular business travel.

    If you’re a solo business traveler, it’s a great way to see parts of the country you normally only get to see for work. And since that’s usually only airports, meeting rooms, and conference halls, you’re missing all the cool stuff a city has to offer.

    Photo of a laptop on a towel at the beach. This would be the ideal bleisure working vacation!Bleisure travel at its barest essence is just tacking an extra day (or even weekend) onto your business travel trip. Going to be in New York City or Chicago for business and heading home on Thursday or Friday? Extend your stay by a day or two and spend some time checking out the city — visit a museum, catch a ballgame, eat at some nice restaurants, and take a tour.

    If you’re flying, there won’t be much of a price difference between flying home Sunday versus Friday, and you can just extend your hotel stay by the corresponding number of nights. Just make sure you pay for your own hotel night and cover your off-day meals, and you’ve got a nice little mini-vacation in a place where you might not find yourself again for a long time.

    You can also arrange to spend time on the front end of your travels to do the same thing. Instead of arriving in town the day before your big meeting — always travel the day before a big meeting or presentation — get there two days in advance so you can spend the next day exploring and visiting. If you can get there early enough, you can spend a good portion of your travel day seeing the sights too.

    If you take your family to share your hotel room, the price won’t be any more for the room, even if they’re staying with you during the business portion of your trip. In fact, your family can go out and explore while you’re doing your trade show, conference, meetings, or whatever brings you into town. And if you’re going to fly them to your destination, then think about it as saving your ticket price for the vacation; you’re only paying for the rest of them to get there.

    I’ve used the bleisure concept for years, long before anyone came up with the silly name. I would often spend an extra day or two at a trade show destination, especially if it was in Europe.

    Many years ago, I was heading down to Orlando for a trade show, so I decided to tack a vacation onto that. I made the arrangements with my employer, my family and I flew down, and they stayed in my room while I was at the show. When the show was over, we packed up and drove to Disney World for four days before flying home again.

    While a bleisure trip is most likely not going to turn into a full vacation, it’s at least a way to get a little more benefit out of a business trip. You can explore new cities you normally don’t visit, or you can give yourself time to see things you normally don’t see outside of the typical business travel circuit. And it makes your business trips a little more fun and interesting.

    Have you ever taken a bleisure trip? Where did you go? How did you manage it? Share your tips and suggestions, stories and adventures in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

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