Use Home Automation to Help With Your Travels

October 12, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advanced Home Automation for the Traveler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Avoid Getting Sick Before Your Vacation

September 13, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough

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

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

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

2. Get plenty of sleep.

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

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

3. Stay hydrated

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

Make sure you wash your hands after you do this!

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

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

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

4. Wash your hands for 20 seconds

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

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

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

5. Take your medicine if you start to feel sick

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: PXhere.com (Creative Commons 0)

How to 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)

Take Vacations During Off-Peak Travel Times

November 30, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the greatest joys I have as a traveler is going to a normally-busy place sometime in the off-season and feeling like I have the entire place to myself. Mackinac Island, Disney World, overseas trips to Germany and The Netherlands. They all feel like a private playground when I visit while everyone else is at work or school.

It’s like I’ve discovered a secret location that only a few people know about. We all stroll casually around, smiling at each other, knowing we’re in on the same secret. You can walk up to rides, there are no lines for museums and exhibits, there’s no one on the beach, and you can get seated within minutes during normal meal times And you’re spoiled for choices when choosing a hotel room at an inexpensive rate. It’s glorious!

I’ve also been in Disney World, Chicago, and several resort towns during peak vacation times, and it’s — well, let’s just say I didn’t feel so special on those days. Hotels are expensive, traffic is evacuate-before-a-disaster heavy, you’ll wait for a week at a restaurant, and the crowds are so big that even an extrovert like me just wants to crawl under the covers for a week.

As a result, my family has been a regular practitioner of traveling during off-peak times. Hotels cost a lot less, there are often discount packages available for some destinations, and you can get a more personalized experience as the staff can focus more attention on you, or at least not be so harried when they try to help you.

So I’m very interested in Offpeak.io. It’s a website that analyzes the travel times in major cities and give you an idea of what’s a peak travel time versus an off-peak time in a chosen city, so you can book your travel plans accordingly. The site is still in beta, but what I’ve seen so far is pretty spot on.

You can use Offpeak.io to find out if there are any major events going on in your chosen city — sporting events, festivals, and holidays — what the weather should be like, and even check the average hotel rates and number of available hotels.

The results appear in a bar graph showing occupancy rates. The smaller the bar, the more rooms there are; the higher the bar, the more crowded everything is going to be. The hotel room rates follow the median price for a hotel room too: higher bars mean higher expected rates.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The end of January and early February are always off-peak travel times because there are no major holidays, and everyone is back at school (which makes running around Disney World a dream!). You can find hotel rooms for a median rate of $78 on a February weekday in Edinburgh, Scotland, but then the weather is cold and rainy at that time. A comparable hotel in Boston will cost $189, which is pretty cheap for Boston, but the city is going to be most likely buried under a foot of snow.

Offpeak.io has information on 111 cities, including Amsterdam, Mexico City, Osaka, Cape Town, and Melbourne. But no Indianapolis, Offpeak? Seriously? You’ve got Cleveland in there, but not Indianapolis? (Hint: The end of May is horrible for finding a hotel in Indianapolis, especially on the west side. If you’re not going for the Indy 500, stay on the northeast side.)

Be sure to pay attention to the weather in your area, and plan your travel methods accordingly. You may find a cheap hotel rate in Boston and Chicago in January or February, but you can almost count on the weather being a factor in any cancelled flights, highway closures, and hotel availability. On the other hand, when are you going to find hotel nights that cheap in Boston and Chicago at any other time of the year?

When do you like to travel? Do you go the same time as everyone else and just fight the crowds? (You’re a better person than I am!) Or do you like to go when no one else is around? Share your strategies with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Family Vacations: Airbnb Versus Hotels?

October 26, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

How do you feel about staying in someone else’s home during family vacations? I don’t mean visiting family during your holiday break (which is no picnic, let me tell you). I mean renting someone else’s house for a night, a week, or even a few weeks?

If you’re traveling somewhere for a few days on one of your family vacations, would you rather rent a hotel room with a brand you can trust so you can get an experience you can expect? Or would you rather be adventurous, stay in a place that lets you experience the real part of a city, and have a lot more space than you would in a cramped hotel room?

I’ve had a chance to stay in both Airbnbs and hotels over the years, and I’m actually having a hard time deciding which I prefer. Not my wife though. She’s insistent: no staying in other people’s houses. She’s only done it once, and then only because it was way cheaper than a hotel room. Otherwise, she doesn’t like it.

She just doesn’t like the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s bed, using their sheets, occupying their space. I’m less worried about it. For one thing, they always put clean sheets on the bed. For another, they’re never around (I always get the “whole house” rentals, never an “own room”).

Airbnb is a great way to find an inexpensive place to stay during family vacations
Read more

Try Some Winter Family Getaways This Season

October 12, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

I like winter. I like the bracing cold. I like the snow, although I don’t like the ice so much. I like seeing my breath and feeling little icicles form on my mustache. I love walking outside during the first snowfall when everything is so quiet because the snow has absorbed the sound.

Of course, I don’t get that here in Central Florida. We barely cracked the low 40s this past winter, and I miss it. Mostly.

So if I want a winter getaway, I’ve got a few places I would like to go in December or even January to get my snow fix for the year. Maybe you can check one of them out this coming winter and tell me how it goes.

Vermont/New Hampshire/Maine
I once spent a couple summer days at The Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Hollow, New Hampshire. It was gorgeous, and I nearly got to spend the summer there. I also remember wishing I could come back for the winter, because they had some great winter activities as well: horseback riding, winter hikes, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, bonfires, and sitting inside by the fire with a book laughing at the weirdos out in the cold.
Read more

How to Pack for Emergency or Unexpected Travel

September 28, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Hurricane Irma recently passed through Florida, and many people in southern Florida were forced to evacuate and head up north. I live in Central Florida and we debated whether we should actually go. We ended up staying, and all was well. But it was good practice for future travel.

It reminded me of other times I had some urgen travel plans pop up at the drop of a hat, either because I had a surprise conference or sales call to go to, or had to visit family for an unexpected issue at home.

In all those times, it’s hard to know what to pack. You can either overpack or underpack if you’re not careful, because you’re in a rush to nail down all these last minute details. Here are a few things I’ve done to make sure I’m always prepared for emergency travel.
Read more

How to Avoid Getting Sick on Your Next Vacation

September 14, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It was certainly a honeymoon to remember, as my new bride and I both got a stomach virus three days into our Disney World trip. As we lay in bed, battling our illness, trying to salvage what was left of our honeymoon, we realized we had been contaminated by someone who attended our wedding. We hugged and kissed so many people that day though, we couldn’t be sure of the guilty party.

(First of all, if you’ve been sick, or you’re fighting an illness, don’t go to a wedding!)

But we could have just as easily gotten sick on that vacation, and as I’ve been traveling more and more, I’m realizing how lucky I’ve been to not get sicker over the years.

So as you start traveling for the fall and winter, here are a few tips for you to remember to avoid getting sick on your next vacation.
Read more

Consider Visiting Quirky Places on Your Next Family Vacation

July 13, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

I’ve got a weird sense of humor and always appreciate the unusual and quirky. I collect typewriters, I listen to radio theater, and I love stories about little-known historical events. My tastes in travel and family vacation run a bit unusual as well. I’m fascinated by cities that have unusual histories or have odd attractions that no one else in the world has.

When I visited Washington D.C. years ago, I made sure to visit my friend who ran the Bead Museum (now closed), a museum dedicated to artistic beads throughout the world. I was intrigued by the way different civilizations had all discovered putting holes in pretty objects to wear around their necks and wrists, but I was more intrigued that there was a whole museum about it.

When I lived in northern Indiana, I lived about 40 minutes from Mentone, Indiana, home of the world’s largest egg. It’s a 10 foot high concrete egg that weighs 3,000 pounds in the middle of town, and I occasionally drove to see it just to say I did.
Read more

Solving the “Where To Go For The Holidays” Problem

June 15, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Research firm DK Shifflet recently released their Monthly Top 5 list of traveler trends. This month’s topic is What types of activities do families with children 12 and under participate in most often when traveling in the U.S.?

Surprisingly, “threatening to ‘turn this car around and go back home!'” was not on the list, even though it would have been what my dad participated in the most when my sister and I were kids.

Instead, the researchers contacted over 50,000 U.S. households and said that the number one travel activity is “visit friends and relatives.” As many as 30% of the families surveyed said they do this the most often.

(Notice they didn’t say “enjoy the most.”)
Read more

Last updated by at .

Next Page »