About Erik Deckers

Erik Deckers is a travel writer, as well as a content marketer and book author. He is the co-author of Branding Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine. Erik has been blogging since 1997, and has been a newspaper humor columnist for over 20 years

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Five Reasons to Take a Fall Vacation

September 12, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Now that summer is over and the kids are back in school, this is the best time to start thinking about a fall vacation. But it doesn’t have to be a two-week trek to a whole different part of the world: Micro-cations are the new trend, so you could spend 3 – 4 days (a long weekend, really) and lay back and relax.

Maybe you can take a few days this October or November and spend it in a new city, enjoying the fall colors and cooler temperatures. Or if you live in Florida, you can head to the theme parks or the beach and enjoy the fact that the crowds have all gone back home.

Here are five reasons you should take a fall vacation (or micro-cation) for a few days.

1. The prices are lower for hotels and airfare.

Now that the peak travel season is over, the prices are lower for most vacation costs. You can get an airplane ticket for less than the summer prices, and your hotel costs are lower as well. This means you can stay an extra day, stay in a normally-more expensive hotel, or even fly at a more convenient time for the same amount you would have spent in the summer.

2. Fall vacation crowds are smaller.

Mackinac Island is a great place for a fall vacation.One of the best time to hit the Florida theme parks are right after school has started: all the kids are back in school, which means most corporate vacation seasons are also over. That means a smaller crowd inside the kid-friendly places. I can tell you that Wednesdays in October are thoroughly enjoyable in the Orlando theme parks.

It’s the same in all the other vacation attractions around the country: Museums tend to be a little less crowded, as are restaurants, sightseeing tours, and other tourist attractions. Lines and wait times are shorter and you can often get reservations at that hotel or restaurant you’ve been dying to try.

3. The temperature is more enjoyable.

Summers are plenty hot, which makes going outside a bit of a challenge. You have to stay plenty hydrated, and sometimes your day is just spent walking from shady spot to shady spot or spending the entire day inside for the air conditioning.

In the fall, the temperatures have cooled to a more manageable level, and you only have to put on a light sweater or even a sweatshirt to deal with the cooler days. It’s not so cold you have to wear a parka and mittens, so you can still enjoy your time outside.

4. There’s a bigger emphasis on relaxing.

When I was a kid, summer vacations were always about going somewhere and doing something. Even when we vacationed in Florida, we were always on the go. A day at the beach was hardly relaxing, because we had to drive there, fight for a spot in the sand, complain about the heat, wait in line for snacks, wait for a table at restaurants, and then whine about the sunburns and sand in our swimsuits. It wasn’t that fun, frankly.

With a fall vacation, I always feel more relaxed. Maybe it’s something about the lower temperatures, but it always makes me slow down. I’m more interested in going for a walk, especially in the woods. I can hang out, meander around a new city, or drive around and look at the leaves. Fall is more about seeing and enjoying, not rushing and doing.

5. It’s the last chance for a breather before the holidays.

Most of us have hectic, chaotic holiday seasons coming up: there are the different office parties, friends’ parties, and various different parties, shopping, and kids’ events you’ve got to attend. You can easily get overwhelmed with everything you have to do.

A fall vacation is the last chance to relax before the busy holidays begin, starting a week or two before Thanksgiving, and not ending until after the new year. Take a break at the end of October or early November, and spend a few days relaxing and taking it easy while you still can. That way, you won’t feel so wound up from summer vacation just as you start the silly season.

Are you going to take a fall vacation? Have you taken any, or would you take one? If you’re taking one this year, what are your plans? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Michael Sprague (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Six Things to Know About Micro-Cations

August 29, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

The latest trend with vacations — other than creating a playful new word — is to take short trips that last no more than 4 nights.

No longer referred to as just “long weekends,” the travel industry is now calling these mini-trips micro-cations. Makes sense, since you don’t always have to do them over the weekend.

I’m on board with the micro-cations trend though. According to a study by Allianz Travel Insurance, (n)early three-fourths (72 percent) of Millennials took at least one micro-cation in the last year, while 69 percent of Gen X’ers and 60 percent of Baby Boomers did the same.

It makes perfect sense! After all, it’s hard to get away for a week or two when you have to deal with work, school, and family obligations. But grabbing 3 or 4 days, even in the middle of the week, can be a nice way to take a break, and even take a break more often.

Here are six things you can do with micro-cations.

Man and woman jumping into a pool fully clothed. This is the kind of crazy stuff you can on micro-cations, if you're so inclined.

  1. You can add them onto a business trip. This is also called a bleisure trip, where you combine business and leisure travel. You’ll already be in the area, so there’s no need to pay travel costs, and you only have to pay for your personal lodging, food, and so on, but you’ve saved on the travel costs.
  2. You can visit some places in the off-season. One thing that’s great about living in Orlando is that we can visit the theme parks whenever we’d like, and we know to avoid them during the peak tourist season. So the best times to go are right before Spring Break, right after school starts, and right after Fall Break. You can take your own micro-cation in an off-season and miss the biggest crowds.
  3. Things may cost a little less in the middle of the week. Not only are crowds smaller, but prices may be lower. There could be special mid-week packages or even special hotel rates. Just stay away from the hotels popular with the business crowds: Those prices are higher during the week and lower on the weekends..
  4. You can take more of them. Nearly a third of Millennials in the Allianz study took three or more micro-cations in a year. If you only get two weeks of vacation (10 working days), that makes it hard to see very many places in a single year. But you can get three or even four micro-cations in a single year. Combine them with a weekend, and you can get your money’s worth while still only taking a couple days off at a time.
  5. It’s financially easier to take shorter trips. How many of us (or our parents) would save for a year or two for that one big vacation? You might have saved a lot of money and still ended up paying for it after you got home. But with micro-cations, you don’t spend as much, which makes saving up for them a lot easier.
  6. If you decide you don’t like it, you haven’t wasted your entire trip. Have you ever been on a vacation that just went miserably? I have. Believe me, they’re not fun. And it’s worse when one goes south on day 2 of a 7-day trip. Now, I’m not saying this is a positive point of a micro-cation, but I am saying that if you end up having a vacation that goes south (figuratively), you won’t have to put up with it for too long before you can go home again.

Micro-cations are becoming the new trend, especially for Millennial and Gen X travelers: 25% of Millennials don’t want to spend more money on a longer vacation, and 40% of Gen X-ers say it’s easier to take time off work for a short trip.

What do you think about micro-cations? Have you taken any, or would you take one? If you took one, what did you like or dislike about it? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: PXHere.com (Creative Commons 0)

How to Manage It When Your Flight Is Canceled

August 15, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

My wife and daughter flew to New York a few weekends ago to visit some family, and were meant to fly back on a Sunday afternoon. However, this was a weekend of major storms (there was flooding in Brooklyn!), and all the flights in the New York area were canceled on that Sunday evening.

After standing in line for a couple hours, all they could manage to get was a standby flight the following evening. They went back to my wife’s cousin’s and spent the day there again. They returned to the airport at the appropriate time, and it happened again: All the flights were canceled.

This was Monday evening, and my daughter had already missed a class and a day of work, and was about to miss another day of work on Tuesday.

My mother-in-law came to the rescue however. She drove up Monday night from Central Florida to Newark, New Jersey, arriving Tuesday evening. They turned around and drove back to Florida that night, getting home on Wednesday afternoon, nearly 60 hours after they were supposed to leave

Thunderstorms may require you to make other plans if your flight is canceled

Dark Night Thunderstorm Lightning Sky Storm

Given the crazy weather patterns, the way airlines fill up (and sometimes overbook) their flights, and the frequent occurrence of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” — it’s a good idea to make contingency plans for your vacations and business trips, to ensure you don’t run into the same kinds of problems.

But you don’t want to start making contingency plans when you’re standing in a 3-hour line with the faint glimmer of hope of getting a standby flight. Here are a few things you should do to prepare your contingency plans in case your flight is canceled.

First, make sure you purchase travel insurance before your trip. Get it as soon as you book your tickets, in fact. If your flight or trip gets canceled due to natural disasters, it doesn’t cover you if you bought it after the natural disaster occurred. That is, if you buy travel insurance two days before you leave because a hurricane is just boiling up, you won’t be covered. You needed to buy the insurance well before the hurricane was even a tropical depression in the middle of the ocean.

Second, make sure you understand your passengers’ rights when a flight is canceled. You need to know things like the airline doesn’t “owe” you anything if it’s canceled due to weather or other events outside their control (riots, strikes, war)> But if it’s canceled because of something in their control (mechanical issues, plane change, crew shortage), they have to help you out: food vouchers, hotels, even switching to another airline. Be sure to review your rights so you know what you can ask for and what they won’t cover.

Next, consider booking your flight and vacation with a travel agent. This is not a more expensive option.

Let me say that again: It does not cost more money to book your plans through a travel agent. They get paid in commissions from the airline and hotels, you don’t pay them. If anything, they may save you a little money.

But if there’s a problem, you can get your travel agent to start working on it, and they can make other arrangements on your behalf. (Plus, if anyone needs to wait on hold for an hour or more, wouldn’t you like to skip that yourself?)

Install apps for your favorite rental car agency on your phone. When my wife first thought about driving home, she went down to the rental car agencies — she had to take a shuttle after standing in line for nearly two hours — and not only were the cars gone for the night, there was a 48-hour hold on renting out any more cars. But if she’d had, say, Enterprise’s or Hertz’s app on her phone, she could have booked the car as soon as the flight was canceled and still gotten one. Or she could have booked a car at a facility several miles away and caught a Lyft or Uber there.

Install your airline’s app too. When a flight gets canceled, it’s the responsibility of the airline to book you on the “next available seat.” And they’ll notify you by text or email when they do it, but you could also get notifications through your app. You might even be able to make some arrangements via the app, although don’t make that your first strategy. Maybe try that while you’re standing in line.

Speaking of standing in line, go to another gate to rebook your flight. When a flight gets canceled, a lot of people will run up to their original gate to get rebooked. But there’s nothing magical about that gate: Every gate in the airline is connected to the same system, so any agent at any gate should be able to help you. Leave your gate and walk to another one where the flight has just left, and ask them for help.

Note: Some airlines are going away from this model. My wife said that her airline would not provide that service and everyone from all the flights that had been canceled — and that was all of them — had to stand in a customer service line, which only had five people working at the desk. She waited for nearly two hours and there were 40 people in front of her. When she looked behind her, she estimated there were at least 150. So if you learn there’s going to be trouble, make a bee line for the customer service desk immediately.

If you find yourself in that situation, that’s the time to call the airline’s customer service hotline. Even if you have to wait on hold while you wait in line, do both. Either way, you’ve got both bases covered, and you’ll reach a real person.

Another thing my wife learned is that the airline will only match your flight with an identical flight. So if you have a direct flight, they will only put you on a direct flight. You can’t get a one-layover flight to a different city. For example, if your layover city is the place with weather problems, you could fly to a different layover city and get home from there. But if you flew a nonstop flight, they won’t do that for you. And the reverse is true: if you have a layover flight, they won’t put you on a nonstop flight.

Finally, don’t get upset at the agents helping you. These are not the people responsible for the weather, making the decision to cancel your flight, or the kink thrown into your plans. Yelling at them won’t make them find you a better solution, but I can tell you from personal experience that being kind and sweet to them will make them want to find you a solution as quickly as possible.

(I once watched a guy bellow at a gate agent, and she apologized but said she was not able to help him. At. All. When it was my turn, I was all sweetness and sunshine, and I got a ticket on an alternate flight right away.)

Bottom line: Don’t wait until you’re in a sticky situation before you start looking for solutions. Make a few arrangements beforehand, even if it’s working with a travel agent and installing a couple apps on your phone, so you aren’t trying to figure out what to do when you learn your flight has been canceled.

How do you cope with major disruptions to your travel plans? What are some of your tips and tricks? Tell us about them on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Maxpixels.net (Creative Commons 0)

Skip the Chain Restaurants When You Travel

July 25, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Years ago, when I worked for a software company, my boss and I made the drive from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Minneapolis, Minnesota for a conference. I had never been to Minneapolis, and I was looking forward to the trip and visiting a new city. It was my first business travel trip for this new company.

We stayed in a hotel which was situated right near a Chili’s restaurant. I’ve never been a great fan of chain restaurants, but when I lived in a small town in northern Indiana, those were often our best options available to us.

Still, whenever I visited a big city, I went on the prowl to find some of the better local restaurants, which were always going to be better than the boil-in-a-bag fare at the big-name chains.

Not for my boss, though. Our first night, he made a beeline straight for the TGI Fridays, dragging me along with him. It was fine, if mediocre, but I figured I could put up with it for one night. The next night, I got to choose, and we tried something a little more exotic — tapas, I think.

The next night? Back to Fridays. My boss’ reason? Because it was predictable, and it tasted the same as the Fridays back home.

“That’s exactly my point,” I said. “If I want Fridays back home, I’ll get Fridays when I’m back home. We’re in a city filled with people from a whole different part of the world, and this is our chance to eat something we’ve never tried before.”

If anything, this was exactly what he did not want. My boss didn’t want new, he wanted reliable. He wanted predictable. He wanted to eat the very same thing that he had at home.

To me, this was a boring way to live, so I took the rental car and found a new place, leaving him to his decidedly un-fun food. (He even took an industry colleague to dinner, although I think that guy may have wanted to go with me.)

Leave the Tourist Areas When You Travel

Paris on Ponce & La Maison Rouge restaurant. Go to a place like this when you travel.This has always been the rule in my family whenever we travel: When we go somewhere new, we eat somewhere new. You’ll never find us in a national chain restaurant, and we won’t eat the same things we can get at home.

I used to tell my kids the same thing my dad told me when I was a kid: “I didn’t travel all this way to eat food from home.” I never understood what the big deal was until I realized what I had been missing. That’s more or less when I stopped eating in chains in general, and especially when I travel.

In Orlando, near the tourist part of town, are all kinds of restaurants geared toward the tourists. Sure, there are some chains for the less adventurous, but there are some unique and adventurous restaurants and a fun and interesting place to visit. Sure, they’re huge, designed to seat a few hundred people all at once, but they’re there for the tourists who want something new.

But if you really want good food, if you really want to find the best the city has to offer, ditch the tourist areas and find out where the locals go. Where are the trendy parts of town? Where are the cool neighborhoods? Check out Yelp and see which neighborhoods they list in their filters. Look for the best restaurants in the area, or do a search for the best restaurants that serve the food you’re interested in. Make it a rule that if you recognize the name of the restaurant, you avoid it.

Another option is, if you’re traveling in a large city, pick up their local alt-weekly — the weekly entertainment and dining newspaper that’s geared toward locals, not tourists — and read their restaurant reviews. (Most of these papers also have a website, if you can’t find a paper.)

And of course, you can do all this research online before you ever leave home. Do a Google Maps search and look for restaurants in a certain part of town, near your hotel or Airbnb, or even just a certain type of food.

If you’re traveling with a group, take turns deciding what restaurants you’re going to visit. Make sure you take any allergies and other dietary restrictions into account too (Yelp has some great filters to help you find what you need). And then avoid all the tourist traps and tourist-attracting restaurants and eat where the locals eat.

What kinds of restaurants do you like to visit when you travel? Do you prefer your favorite standbys or do you like to explore and find something new. Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Marilyn Chen (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

The Benefits of a Bleisure Vacation

July 11, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Bleisure — a portmanteau of “business” and “leisure” — is an excellent way for families to take small vacations, or for overworked business travelers to relax for a day before jumping back into the swing of work. And if you’re a frequent traveler who visits all kinds of cities but never actually gets to see anything, like I was for several years, it’s a great way to see a new city without the added travel costs.

Essentially, a bleisure trip just means tacking an extra day or two onto the beginning or end of a business trip. For example, if you’re traveling to Orlando for a conference, you can pad your schedule by a couple extra days, book your plane ticket according to the new schedule, and then play to your heart’s content for those two extra days.

You’ll need to pay for those extra hotel nights yourself, as well as any expenses — meals, events, car rental, admission tickets — but otherwise, you’re already there, so treat yourself to a day or two in a new city.

Photo of a laptop on a beach. This would be a great way to spend a bleisure trip.The nice thing about a bleisure trip is you’re already paying for a plane ticket or driving to that city. There’s no need to pay for transportation to return to the city a different time.

Plus, your schedule may afford you some of that extra time already. It’s very rare for a business conference or trade show to run over the weekend, and most of them end on a Friday, if not a Thursday afternoon. Nearly all the conferences I have ever attended tried to get you home on a Friday, so it should be easy to extend your stay to Sunday; no one is expecting you at the office on Saturday morning.

Also, extending your stay can sometimes lower your airfare significantly. The two cheapest days to fly on are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the next two are Thursday and Saturday. And the most expensive are Sundays and Fridays.

The reason for this is because most business travelers prefer to fly on Mondays and Fridays, and most vacationers prefer to return home on Sundays.

So if you had a conference that ran on a Thursday, and Friday, you could book a Tuesday – Saturday flight, and get a much cheaper ticket. (I would even try to get a very early flight on Tuesday and a very late flight on Saturday.)

In some cases, this could even save enough money to get the company to pay for an extra hotel night. I remember once that a plane ticket cost $300 less if I flew home one day later. My hotel was only $120 for the night, so I stayed the extra day.

Being on a bleisure trip can also give you some extra time with your family, especially if you’re a frequent traveler, like I was. Fifteen years ago, I was going to attend a conference in Orlando, and I decided to tack on a 5-day vacation.

The company paid for my own plane ticket, and I paid for my family’s. We all stayed in the same hotel room, and after the conference was over, we spent a few days at Disney World and flew home the following week.

My wife and kids would hang out at the pool or go shopping while I was at the conference, and they got to enjoy a few extra days in Florida at (almost) no cost. We were responsible for our own meals — I would pay for mine separately on the company card — and we got to spend a few extra days together, avoiding the cold Indiana winter for a few days.

Bleisure travel is becoming popular and important enough that many businesses are encouraging their people to take an extra day or two while they’re traveling. (If you do it right, it won’t even count against your vacation days.) So if you ever have the chance to visit a new city or country while you’re on business, take the chance.

What kinds of bleisure trips have you taken? Do you go by yourself or take your family? What do you like to do when you’re traveling? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Laura Hoffmann (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Things You SHOULD Buy Before You Travel

June 27, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

While there are many things you can probably go without when you travel — miniature sleep tents for airplanes, battery-powered neck-warming pillows, airplane bathrobes — there are a few things you should have.

Smarter Travel recently published an article on seven things you shouldn’t buy before you travel, and I found myself disagreeing with about half of their items. The list includes:

  1. Travel insurance
  2. Private Passport Expediting Service
  3. Seat Assignment
  4. Prepaid Credit Cards
  5. Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrades
  6. TV Show Downloads
  7. Expedited Security

As a former road warrior turned frequent road tripper and couple-times-a-year flier, I think you’re making a big mistake if you follow this advice. There are a few items I absolutely insist on getting, and a couple items I could go either way. And, of course, there are some you should absolutely never, ever pay for. Ever.

To start with, I agree, you should not pay for private passport expediting services. You’re basically paying someone else to fill out a form and/or stand in line for you. You can pay for expedited service from the State Department anyway, which is what the private services are going to do. You can also get “life or death emergency” passport services. If you can do it yourself, do you really need to pay a few hundred dollars for someone else to do it?

I also agree you shouldn’t pay for TV show downloads, unless you’re already doing it. Download Netflix or Hulu episodes if you’re a subscriber (that’s included in your subscription), but don’t buy new episodes just for a trip. You’ve probably had plenty of items on your Netflix watchlist for many months if not years, so watch some of those. Save the purchased episodes for when you get home.

Skip prepaid credit cards, unless you can’t get your own credit cards. You should instead get credit cards that give you travel miles, so you can help pay for your next trip.

And the seat assignment thing is a little iffy. If you check in immediately 24 hours before your flight — like, right at 23:59:59 before you leave — you could probably get a good seat. However, just remember that there are people like me who purchase the Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrade, and I can reserve my seat when I book my ticket two months in advance. But if you’re on a less-popular flight or route, you’ll probably be okay.

You Should Absolutely Get These Before You Travel

However, I think you should get these things before you travel, especially if you fly more than once a year. (There are a few exceptions for each of these though.)

1. Buy travel insurance if you’re going on an expensive trip.
I don’t always get travel insurance, but there are plenty of times that I do. If nothing else, your travel insurance is going to help pay for any and all lost pre-paid tickets if you ever have to cancel or cut short a trip because of weather or illness.

Imagine saving up for a family vacation and canceling all those non-refundable airline tickets because someone got the flu two days before the flight. Sure you can recover or postpone the park/cruise/adventure tickets, but it’s a lot of hassle and time, not to mention the loss of any nonrefundable fees. Travel insurance can help you avoid all those headaches, and it’s not that expensive.

Check the different travel insurance options — and make sure you know what they cover and don’t cover beforehand — before you book your first ticket.

2. Get the platinum-economy seat upgrades.
As I’ve said before, I’m bigger than average. I need more legroom, but I don’t want to upgrade to business class. The Economy Plus (or whatever each airline calls it) is completely worth the extra costs.

The difference in seat pitch between Economy and Economy Plus may only be a couple of inches, but those couple inches mean the world of difference to me. I’ve spent two hours with my knees jammed up against the back of a seat, and I’ll change my entire itinerary before I ever do that again.

3. Pay for expedited security.

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

As the Smarter Travel article said:

Expedited security can be a really awesome perk when you’re faced with a lengthy line that snakes off into the distance. On the other hand, when there are three other people in line and the sound of crickets in the air, it can feel like a rip-off.

Even if you only fly once a year, expedited security is totally worth it. The cost for TSA PreCheck is $85 and it lasts for 5 years: $85 ÷ 5 = $17.

So your cost for having PreCheck is $17 per year. For a round-trip flight, that works out to $8.50 per trip. Would you pay $8.50 to not have to stand in line at security? I would.

I can tell you that never-have-I-ever been in a security line with only three people in it, but I’ve been in plenty of lines that snake off into the distance before. And there are some days where I would just pay 85 bucks to skip that line, let alone have five years’ worth of skipping.

If you’re a very infrequent traveler, or you’re small enough to fit into the regular economy seats, maybe you can skip these three “should buys,” but for the most part, I always recommend them to anyone who’s average height or above and flies at least once a year. Otherwise, take a good, long look at what you’re giving up, and see if the gains make up the possible headaches that will arise if something goes wrong.

What kind of “must haves” do you get before you travel? Are there any we can skip or items we should never leave the house without? Share your tips on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Five Things to Know About Your Next Rental Car

June 11, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

I don’t travel that often anymore, but I’ve created a new rule for myself: If I have to go 800 miles or less, I’ll drive rather than fly. And I’ll get a rental car to boot.

I don’t mind the time spent on the road by myself — I look forward to it, if I’m being honest. I get to listen to podcasts, make phone calls, and see parts of the country I usually don’t get to see.

And even if I flew, I would probably need a rental car anyway just to get around. So I can either buy a plane ticket for $400+ on top of the rental car fee, or I can just rent the car.

I’ve rented enough cars to know some of the tricks to getting a good deal and avoiding some of the traps that seem to befall renters. Here are five things you should know before you rent your next car.

1. You PROBABLY Don’t Need Their Insurance

Rental car parkCar companies will always try to sell you their additional insurance, but there’s a very good chance that you don’t need it. For $10 – $30 per day, you can pay for the insurance in case the unthinkable happens. This can also cover you against dings and dents that might come up, as well as more serious accidents you’re involved in.

However, your own car insurance may cover this for you, so speak to your insurance agent to make sure. Additionally, some credit cards will also cover rental cars for you, as long as you rent that car with that card. Again, check this out before you book your rental.

2. Fill up before you return the car.

If you turn in your rental car without any gas, or with less gas than when you left, you’ll pay a hefty refueling charge. So the rental car companies will sometimes sell you pre-paid gas, which covers their time and costs in filling the tank for you. The problem is, it can be anywhere from $.50 – $1.50 more than normal gas prices.

So whatever you do, make sure you fill up before you return your car. If you’re not sure about how to find nearby gas stations, check Google Maps before you even get there. Then drive by on the way out so you can see where it’s located compared to the pickup location. Set it as a favorite in Waze or your GPS app so it’s easy to find later.

Also, keep in mind that some gas stations closest to an airport will also charge more than normal street pricing, so use an app like Gas Buddy or Waze to find the best prices.

3. Watch out for hidden fees

Rental companies will hit you with hidden fees if you’re not careful. Here are a few to watch out for.

  • Mileage: Most rental companies offer unlimited mileage, but that may change if you leave the state or region. Others will only give you a daily allotment, and charge you if you go over.
  • Airport concession: This is a fee that airports charge car rental companies to be able to operate there. If you’re renting a car from your hometown, don’t go to the airport to pick up your car. Do some comparison shopping to make sure.
  • Additional drivers: Some companies will charge you if you have additional drivers, but places like Enterprise and Avis let spouses and domestic partners be added at no extra cost.
  • Frequent flier fees: If you want to apply your rental miles to frequent flier miles instead, you may be charged a small administrative fee.
  • Extra features: Things like a roof rack, GPS, satellite radio, and child seats all cost extra, so if you don’t need them, don’t get them. Download the TuneIn app and Waze to your mobile phone and you can get Internet radio stations (I love WFPK out of Louisville), and Waze is a superior GPS option.

4. Take advantage of upgrade offers.

One of the nice things about renting cars is that you can get a different car than your usual one. I owned a Kia Rio 5 for 12 years, which is a good little car, but it’s not as comfortable for 1,000-mile trips as you would hope. (Trust me on this!) So when I rent a car, I often get a standard or full-size car just for the extra room and comfort.

There were a few times I would get bumped up to the next level — say from intermediate to full-size — because the rental agency was out of the model I requested. If that happens to you, the agency won’t charge you any more, so take advantage of it when the chance arises.

Make sure you pay attention to the gas mileage of your upgrades though. I was once upgraded from a Ford Fusion to a Jeep Wrangler. It was pretty cool because I’ve always wanted a Jeep and this was my chance to pretend for a weekend. However, my gas costs literally doubled because the gas mileage was half of what the Fusion was supposed to be. So, the upgrade hurt a little too.

5. Make a thorough inspection of the rental car before you leave and when you return

Remember, you’re on the hook for any dings and dents that happen to the car. The agent will undoubtedly make an inspection of the car, so be sure to walk with them around the car. Take note of any blemishes you find, and make sure the agent marks it in their rental report. Take photos with your own phone just to be sure.

You don’t want to be blamed for a ding or dent that was already there when you pulled out of the garage, so make sure you know exactly what’s already been done to the car before you leave.

When you return, inspect the car again and take a video in case there are any disputes about its condition. This is especially important if you’re returning the car at a time or place where there’s no agent present. If there’s damage later, even after you turned it in, and they try to blame you, it’s completely your word against theirs.

Are you a regular renter? What rental car tips would you share with other travelers? Share them with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Photo credit: cool3g (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Five Summer Road Trip Planning Secrets

May 30, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

We just finished Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to summer. That means several weeks of travel getaways, whether it’s a weekend out of town or a couple weeks at the beach.

If you’re taking a summer road trip out of town this summer, here are a few things you need to remember. Whether you’re hanging out by the pool, on the beach, or even your kid’s tournament, whether you’re going for a day or a few weeks, here are five things to remember before you leave.

1. Get a car checkup before you leave.

You need to prepare your care for your next summer road trip.Your car can most likely handle whatever city driving you’re going to throw at it, but a 500-mile summer road trip could push it to its limits. Make sure you get the oil changed, the fluids topped off, the tires and spare are properly inflated, the filters have been changed, and that the AC is fully functional.

You may even want to get a wheel alignment since misaligned wheels can eat into your car’s fuel efficiency. Plus, the cost of repairing a breakdown could wreck your entire vacation budget if you break something you weren’t planning on.

If you’re not sure about whether your car can make a long summer road trip, consider renting a car instead. You won’t put the wear and tear on your car, and you can have a brand new one in excellent working condition. The AC will work, you’ll have a lot of the latest features and advances (like a touchscreen display that connects to your mobile phone), and you could even have roadside coverage depending on your rental agency.

2. Take plenty of water with you.

Don’t just plan on stopping for water and beverages during regular stops. For one thing, gas station water costs 2 – 4 times more than the grocery store. Pack a small cooler with a few bottles and keep them in the car with you. If nothing else, they’ll help you out if you have a breakdown or have to spend several hours walking around during the day.

Be sure to take water with you on your outdoor excursions too. As summers are getting hotter and hotter — we hit 95 in Central Florida on Memorial Day Monday — you’re more likely to get dehydrated and suffer the ill effects. So drink up and stay hydrated. Drink more than you think you need rather than thinking you can go without.

3. Be sure to wear sunscreen and sun protection.

If you’re going to be outside for more than 30 minutes, rub sunscreen on exposed areas, including your face and your neck. Look for a high SPF rating and something that’s waterproof and sweat proof.

Don’t forget sunglasses or eye protection. You can also use a hat to shade your eyes and face from the sun (a big floppy hat will cover up a lot more than a baseball cap). And remember, if you’re out on a boat this summer, the reflection of the water can also cause sunburns. So don’t assume your hat is giving you enough protection — you’re getting the bounce back off the water’s surface, so you still need sunscreen.

Don’t worry about a quick trip to the mailbox or from the car to your next stop though — store, restaurant, movie theater. You don’t need to break out the parasol and long sleeves for that. Just take precautions and be careful if you’re going to have prolonged exposure to the sun.

4. Check the weather forecast and know what’s typical for the area.

Use your favorite weather app to determine the weather during your travel dates. Of course, you can’t know what the weather is going to be like six weeks into the future, but you can get a good idea of what it will be like three days before you leave. There are a few travel planners on sites like Accuweather.com, the Weather On Wheels app, and the Weather Network.

Similarly, check out the historical weather patterns for the area, or even better, call a local. If you’re staying at a hotel, call the front desk or concierge and ask them the seasonal weather is usually like. For example, Indiana doesn’t get terribly hot until July and August, and it rarely rains. On the other hand, that’s Central Florida’s rainy season: Not only is it terribly hot, but it rains nearly every single day between 12:00 noon – 3:00 pm.

This means if you’re visiting any of the theme parks, book your lunch around 1:00 pm and don’t let the rain chase you out. Let everyone else leave and the park will be a little emptier for the afternoon and evening.

5. Leave extra time to arrive.

I’ll be honest, I hate traveling over the summer. Everyone is out, they’re hot and sweating and irritable, and there are traffic jams and lines everywhere, so tempers run short. It’s worse when you’re planning on getting somewhere at a certain time, only to find the route is jammed up and you’re not sure if you’re ever going to get there, let alone get there on time.

The general rule of summer driving is to assume that traffic delays will happen and that there’s nothing you can do to make them go faster. But you can plan for them and even avoid them.

If you’re not familiar with an area, study a map before you get there. Find out where the main through streets, bypasses, and known-only-to-local routes are.

Make sure you have Waze installed on your phone, and preprogram some of your destinations (like restaurant reservations) into your Favorites section. You can even preprogram your arrival times, and Waze will calculate your departure time based on historic traffic patterns. And if something pops up, like an unexpected traffic delay, you’ll be alerted about a new time to depart.

How do you prepare for your summer road trip? Do you have any recommendations for your fellow travelers? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Photo credit: tbarcturus (Pixabay.com, Creative Commons 0)

Do You Have to Switch Seats If Someone Asks?

May 23, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Several years ago, I was getting ready to fly to another city and had just boarded the plane. I had paid for an upgrade to an Economy Plus seat, because I like the extra legroom.

(Note: If you want to be able to board early, get a little extra legroom, and make sure you get a space for your bag in the overhead bin, upgrade to Economy Plus. You also get to choose your seat, ensuring you get your preferred seat. Totally worth it!)

I had booked my ticket and selected my seat two months earlier because I’m rather particular about which seats I get and don’t get. I’m a big guy, so I prefer an aisle seat. When the day came, I boarded the plane, found my seat, and settled in. This was a 5-seat row, with three seats on one side and two on the other.

Several minutes later, a grandmother and her two younger granddaughters came in. The girls, 9 and 11, sat in my row, and her grandmother was across the aisle in the window seat; her seatmate had not arrived yet.

“Would you switch with me?” the grandmother asked. “I bought these tickets, but I didn’t think they would split us up.” Airlines often split up passengers and charge fees for seat selection so you can sit together.

You may be asked to switch seats on a plane, but you don't always have to do it.“But I paid for an upgrade so I wouldn’t have a window seat,” I said. I felt like a bit of a jerk. After all, the woman wanted to sit with her granddaughters, which I understood. But there’s no point in paying for an upgrade if you’re still going to get stuck in what you tried to escape from.

I wasn’t sure what to do. It wasn’t like these were tiny children who needed adult supervision. And it’s not like she was at the back end of the plane. But I wondered if I was being selfish. Where was the line between “you should have selected your seats when you bought your tickets” and “when people ask for help, you help them?”

The day was saved, however, when the woman’s seatmate showed up. The grandmother explained what was going on, and the other woman agreed to switch with her so I could switch with the grandmother. Problem solved!

Should You Have to Switch Seats?

We were fortunate in this case. The seatmate was more than willing to be accommodating. She told me she actually preferred the window seat, and she was short enough that the legroom didn’t make a difference to her.

But there are other cases where two people traveling together want to sit together for the plane ride. And even though they’re going to spend every waking hour together for the next several days or weeks, they can’t bear to be more than 30 feet apart for a few hours.

In a recent travel etiquette article on SmarterTravel.com, Caroline Morse Teel tackled the question, Do you have to switch seats if someone asks?.

In short, Teel says no, you’re not required to switch seats (unless you’re specifically asked to do by the flight attendant), because you might be giving up a good seat for a terrible seat. As she said:

Even if you feel like being a good person, don’t agree to anything until you check out where the replacement seat is located. My stance is that the person looking to swap should always offer a seat change of greater or equal value to the person they want to switch with.

For example, if a couple is seated in two window seats and they want to be together, they should trade one of their window seats for a middle seat. If someone is asking you to switch your emergency exit row aisle seat for their back-of-the-plane middle seat, you can decline without feeling guilty. Simply explain that you selected the seat during the booking process and would prefer to keep it. Be polite but firm. You don’t owe any further explanation for your decision.

However, bear in mind that you might be sitting next to a very grumpy person for the next few hours. But they’re the ones who are seeking to inconvenience you, and you’re only choosing to not be inconvenienced for their sake. That’s not your fault or your problem.

What if you want someone to switch with YOU?

So what if the shoe’s on the other foot — or the plane’s on the other tarmac; this is a travel blog, after all — and you want someone to switch with you?

First of all, ask the other person if they would like to switch. Don’t just plop yourself down in the other seat so you can ask once they show up. The example on SmarterTravel came from a person who said she showed up at her seat and found the other person already in it, so she felt pressured to make the switch.

Don’t be that person though. Go to your already-assigned seat and ask the other person politely. Some people will get their hackles up if they feel they’re being pressured, or if you’ve already “stolen” their seat, and they’ll complain to the flight crew. You’ll be the one in the wrong, so you’ll be forced to move anyway and it can be embarrassing.

Second, be prepared to be generous. Remember, if you’re in an upgrade section, the other person paid to be there, so this isn’t just a question of buying someone a coffee or lunch. Some of those upgrades can be a couple hundred dollars, so you’d better make it worth their while.

Third, if the other person refuses, that’s their prerogative. Remember, you’re asking them to do you a favor, and it’s perfectly within their right to refuse. Sure, they’re being selfish, but it’s not like your request was for the greater good either. So be prepared for them to say no and don’t get upset with them for it: It’s going to be a long plane ride already, and you don’t need the tension and stress.

Have you ever been in this situation? How did you handle it? Do you have any other travel etiquette questions or your own stories? Share them with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Photo credit: Christian George (PublicDomainPictures.net, Creative Commons 0)

Five Things to Listen to That Aren’t Music On Your Next Trip

April 25, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

If you’ve ever been on a trip and wanted to listen to something else other than music, you would find there are quite a few options available if you only knew where to look. Maybe you’re a fan of podcasts or audiobooks, maybe you want something more like a movie for your mind, or maybe you’d like to hear what’s happening in another part of the world.

If you’re looking for something other than music, and you want to be informed, entertained, or educated, there are several options for you to try. And whether you’re traveling by yourself or with your family, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Here are a few of the options I use whenever I’m on the road.

1. Listen to News From Another Country

Sure, sure, you can listen to your local news, and you should do that anyway. It’s always good to be informed about what’s happening close to home. But it’s sometimes interesting to hear what other countries are saying about what’s happening over here. And it’s especially interesting to hear what kinds of issues are affecting those countries.

For example, I like to listen to the CBC and BBC via their apps or the TuneIn app. It lets me hear about their local issues, as well as some of the global news we never hear at home.

I also have a Canadian podcast I listen to called CANADALAND (they capitalize it that way, not me!), which covers not only Canadian media criticism but a lot of their local issues affecting different provinces and cities. It’s interesting to have some insider knowledge about a different country, and I’ve had some great conversations with several Canadians about what’s happening back home.

2. Podcasts

I’m a regular podcast listener because I like it better than most commercial radio these days. I have about 12 – 15 podcasts I listen to every week. There are a few general interest podcasts, like Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing, Broken Record With Malcolm Gladwell, and David Tennant’s aptly-named podcast, David Tennant Does A Podcast.

As a writer, I also have some writing specific podcasts I never miss, like Jeff Pearlman’s Two Writers Slinging Yang, Grammar Girl, and The Downtown Writers Jam With Brad King.

Whatever your job, hobby, or side hustle happens to be, I can almost guarantee there’s a podcast about it. Just find your favorite podcast app — I prefer Overcast, but Stitcher has a premium model that gives you extra content — and pick a few podcasts to start listening to. Don’t feel like you have to listen to every episode all the way through — fast forward or just delete and move on. Try out new shows and find what you lie as you settle into an easy-to-manage routine. That way, when you’re heading out on your trip, you’ve got a small bank of episodes saved up and ready to work through.

3. Audiobooks

The audiobook industry is a billion dollar industry, and is a great way to read books without actually reading them. You can borrow CDs from your library, download electronic resources from the same library (get the Hoopla or OverDrive app; ask your librarian if you’re not sure how to use it), or download thousands of free audiobooks through services like LibriVox.

And you can also download the latest books through Amazon’s Audible, a service that lets you download three titles each month. The first month is free, and then you pay $14.99 each month thereafter. If you’re leaving on a trip soon, take it for a test drive and decide whether to keep it right after your trip ends.

4. Audio Drama

This used to be called “radio theatre” (note the -re, which means it’s fancy), but now it’s called audio drama because it’s rarely heard on the radio. it doesn’t matter what you call it though, because there are literally tens of thousands of hours of content available on the Internet, most of it for free.

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip. Consider this for your next trip.

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip

A lot of it comes in the form of new podcasts, like one of my favorites, Decoder Ring Theatre (which produced several of my plays nearly seven years ago), Girl In Space by Sarah Werner, and the wonderful The Orbiting Human Circus.

There’s also plenty of OTR (old-time radio) you can download, like Great OTR, a website run by a friend of mine.And nearly all of the OTR content online is free to download: Just Google “free old-time radio” and you’ll be shown thousands of hours of free old radio shows, from comedies to mysteries to science fiction to police drama.

Download them to your hard drive and load them to your favorite MP3 player., or save them to Dropbox, and then use an app like Cloudbeats to listen to the files directly from Dropbox. (Make sure you set this up before you leave on your trip though.)

5. Stand-Up Comedy

My wife and kids love listening to stand-up in the car. They’ll turn on Pandora or YouTube Radio, select a favorite comic, and then hit play. Since most of these comics’ acts have been released as albums broken down into tracks, the algorithms will generate random playlists of similar comics and take them through a plethora of comics and their work, just like if you started listening to one song from a favorite artist.

It’s a great way to find new comics, stumble on some old favorites, and turn the trip into a series of hilarious surprises. My family will reach the end of a two-hour trip and not want to get out of the car once they arrive, because they’re waiting to finish just one more routine.

(Be careful listening with little kids in the car: some comics are not suitable for children, and given the random nature of their work, you may find yourself quickly fumbling for the Next button.)

What do you listen to when you’re not listening to music? What are some must-hear programs and podcasts? Share your suggestions with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

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