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.

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)

Four Spring Break Ideas for the Whole Family

January 11, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

The new year has begun and we’re already thinking about Spring Break ideas? Well, if most of you were hit by the sudden bomb cyclone weather last week, I’m sure you’re dreaming about warmer weather. Plus, I know a lot of people from New Orleans flee the city during Mardi Gras, while many Bostonians head south during the week of President’s Day, since they get the entire week off.

If you just want to get out of Dodge for a little while, but you maybe don’t want to hit the typical college hot spots, here are a few Spring Break ideas for you. There’s something to do for the whole family, but these are also great places to eat and experience the local culture.

1. Portland, Oregon

If I had to move anywhere else in the country, I’d head to Portland. It may rain quite a bit, but it’s usually a light rain, and not the major storms we get in the Midwest. It also has low humidity and surprisingly few mosquitoes. It’s a great place for excellent food and craft beer, as well as plenty of festivals, theater, and the arts.

There are several museums, including the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI, pronounced AHM-zee), the Portland Art Museum, the Portland Children’s Museum, and the Oregon Maritime Museum. There’s also the Oaks Amusement Park and North Clackamas Aquatic Park for some fun.

Plus you’re a couple of hours away from the beach (I especially love Lincoln City), and Mount Hood if you want to go hiking. If you like outdoor activities, Oregon has a lot to do, and you can do a lot of it within a couple hours of Portland. And the rainfall is less between winter and summer, so a March spring break trip wouldn’t be as rainy as, say, May or September.

2. Nashville, Tennessee

This city is great if you have older kids. While you probably can’t go cruising the bars with them, there are several restaurants that have musical acts in the late afternoon and early evening. Take them out for some music and dinner as you check out some of the sights around the city.

There’s also the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Zoo, the Parthenon, and Opryland (which also has an amusement park). If you want to pay homage to the entertainment pioneers of the south, there’s the Johnny Cash Museum and Cafe, Willie Nelson and Friends Museum, Patsy Cline Museum, and of course, Cooter’s Place in Nashville, a museum dedicated to the Dukes of Hazzard. Or if Spring Training is over, you could catch a ball game with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds baseball team, or a Nashville Predators hockey game.

Finally, if you’re a rock and roll fan, don’t forget to check out Third Man Records, Jack White’s record store and recording studio. He’s doing some interesting things with vinyl records, so it’s worth a look if you’re into vinyl at all.

3. Dallas, Texas

Actually, anywhere south of Nashville is going to be a lot warmer than the Midwest and Northeast at this time of year. But Dallas is a large enough city in one of the biggest states in the country, which means there’s a lot to do, and it’s going to be plenty warm.

You can visit the Dallas Museum of Art, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the African American Museum, and Dallas Heritage Village, which is like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Indiana’s Conner Prairie.

If you’re looking for some fun activities, there’s Six Flags Over Texas or the smaller Zero Gravity Thrill Jump Park. But if you’re interested in sports, check out the Dallas Mavericks for basketball; the Texas Rangers will open at home against the Houston Astros on March 29th; and the Dallas Stars have a few games at home in March.

4. St. Augustine, Florida

Aviles Street in St. Augustine - one of my favorite Spring Break ideas

Aviles Street in St. Augustine, Florida

It’s right on the beach, but it’s not one of the college hotspots. As the United States’ oldest city, it has too much educational and historical significance to be of interest to college students. Or your kids, but who says Spring Break has to be all about amusement parks and kiddie fun time?

St. Augustine was originally a Spanish outpost and colony, so it’s known for its Spanish colonial architecture. Anastasia State Park is a protected wildlife sanctuary and you can check out the St. Augustine Wild Reserve, a nonprofit animal sanctuary. There are also plenty of old sites to check out, including the Fountain Of Youth Archaeological Park, Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, and the El Galeon Ship.

Walk around historic St. George Street, and you can see the oldest wooden school, the old jail, and plenty of interesting shops. You can also ride around on the hop-on-hop-off trolley tour to get around town and hear a little about the place while you’re riding.

The last time we were there, my family and I ate at The Conch House Restaurant, which is right on the main pier overlooking the Bay. But if you’re in the mood for seafood, there are more restaurants than you’ll be able to visit in a single week. And since they’re right on the water, the seafood is always going to be fresh.

Where do you go for Spring Break? Do you have any good Spring Break ideas? Share them with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Phoo credit: paulbr7 (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Four Post-Holiday Return Travel Tips

December 28, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A month ago, you couldn’t swing a full Christmas stocking without hitting an article about pre-holiday travel plans, and what you were allowed to bring on a flight and what you couldn’t.

Things like “don’t pre-wrap gifts in case the TSA needs to check them” and “Pies are allowed through TSA security checkpoints” are very helpful to know.

But what about going home? What special things do you need to know about that?

If you’re like most people, going home usually sees less careful packing, a lot more chaos, and an increased chance of leaving something behind. You’ve got gifts to fit into your bags and you have to get to the airport on time, or you have to hit the highway while everyone else is heading home too.

Here are four ways to avoid stress at the airport or on the road during your post-holiday return travel trip.

1. Remember, the 3-1-1 rule always applies, even on sealed bottles.

If you got a bottle of Scotch, wine, or even a bottle of perfume, even if it’s sealed up, you can’t carry it onto the flight with you. You are allowed to check it in your luggage though, but you want to make very sure it’s well-padded.

Fodor’s Travel Guide recommends you wrap a bottle in clothing a couple of times to protect it:

One method involves putting the wine bottle in a sock, wrapping a piece of clothing around the bottle’s neck until it’s as wide as the bottom of the bottle, and then wrapping the bottle with additional clothing pieces (like shirts). You can add a watertight plastic bag for some extra security. Travelers can also use bubble wrap, instead of clothing, to wrap the bottle, which adds some additional protection for the journey.

2. Ship your gifts home instead of carrying them.

I hope you left plenty of room in your suitcase for the return trip home for all the gifts you got. If you didn’t, you can fill up another suitcase and check it, paying the checked bag fee.

Better yet, you can ship your gifts via UPS or USPS and not have to deal with them until you get home. If you send them the day before you leave, you can also make sure you get home before the gifts arrive. While the costs will vary, there’s a decent chance it will be less than the checked luggage costs, and you won’t have to horse that suitcase around the airport and back to your car.

3. You can bring back leftovers, but they need to be frozen solid.

The TSA will allow frozen eggnog to be taken onto flights during your holiday return travel trip. The TSA will allow things like eggnog or Grandma’s famous wildebeest gravy, but it must be frozen solid and in a cooler. You can also use those freezer packs to keep everything cold, but they must also be frozen solid.

Also, keep in mind that if you carry on a cooler, that counts as one of your carry-on items: you still get a carry-on bag and a personal item that’s small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you. So if your cooler is a third item, check the carry-on bag or pack the personal bag in the carry-on. Don’t try to cheat and bring on the third item.

(And just ask Grandma for the gravy recipe in the future.)

4. Get the travel apps for your travel method.

I’ve harped again and again on having the right apps on your phone for travel: your airline’s mobile app (which lets you check in 24 hours before your flight) and/or Waze, the real-time GPS app that shows you traffic jams and accidents.

No matter what other apps you get, you need a GPS app and your airline app if you want to avoid the travel hassles our parents dealt with when we were kids.

If you don’t have those installed yet, install them and set them up before you head home. Take a few minutes and familiarize yourself with them, and try to do it a day or two before you leave. You can always use Waze to help you get back to the airport on January 2nd, because you can avoid any traffic delays and get there on time. And of course, the app will help you check in faster and avoid the whole check-in line.

And if you still have to check bags, check them at the porter stand outside the airport and then use the app to check in. Just don’t forget to get to the airport two hours early.

What are some of your post-holiday return travel tips? How do you reduce your headaches when you’re heading back home? Share your best tips in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Konstantin RyabitsevM/small>

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