Three Ways Listen to Music While You Travel

February 13, 2020 by · Leave a Comment 

Just like there are countless TV streaming services to choose from, there are several different ways to listen to music on your mobile device or laptop. It’s hard to know how to choose where you find your music, and how you’re going to listen whether you’re in the car, on the plane, at the beach, or even just working out.

Depending on your musical tastes and preferences, here are three ways you can listen to music while you’re on the road without scanning fuzzy radio stations between cities.

1. You can use a streaming service

A mobile streaming service like Spotify lets you listen to music while you travel.Most of us are familiar with radio streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. These are streaming services that cost around $9.99 per month for ad-free listening of your favorite music.

Spotify lets you build playlists of your favorite songs, subscribe to other people’s playlists, listen to an artist’s entire body of works, or even discover what your friends are listening to. Plus, Spotify recently purchased three podcast creation startups, so it now offers its own original podcasts, as well as the ones you normally access.

Pandora, on the other hand, looks at the kind of music you like based on some of your song selections, and tries to find other songs and artists you might also like. For example, I like Tom Waits. When I listen to a Tom Waits station, Pandora looks for similar sounding music — male singer-songwriter. With Pandora, I can find songs and artists I’ve never heard of before and then create a completely personalized playlist based on what I like.

If you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to Prime Music, which has a 2 million song library, or you can get Amazon Music Unlimited for $7.99 per month and access “tens of millions of songs.” You can also listen to Amazon Music Unlimited offline, which means downloading songs to your device. You can download all your favorite songs, but you’ll lose them as soon as you stop paying for the service.

Finally, you can always find music on YouTube or even YouTube Radio, a premium music streaming service that also gives you the options for audio-only or video-and-audio. Also, if you listen to regular YouTube on your phone, the music stops as soon as you shut off your phone or switch away from the app, which means it’s not suitable for car use. YouTube Premium and YouTube Radio both let you switch away from the app, so you can listen while you drive or multi-task.

2. You can listen to Internet radio

As regular terrestrial radio stations consolidated, so did the music around the country. It’s always the same Top 40 songs or same classic rock tracks wherever I go. It’s so hard to find stations that play alternative music or deep album cuts, local bands, or esoteric styles of music.

However, there are a few out there, if you know where to look. (Check out this list of “The 40 Best Little Radio Stations in the US.” The article may be 10 years old, but most of the stations are still out there. And here’s a list of 2020’s best Internet radio stations.)

What you’re getting are those terrestrial local radio stations that also broadcast on the Internet, and they end up getting fans from all over the world. That’s because you can listen to Internet radio stations from all over the world.

There are a few ways you can listen to Internet radio. You can use apps like TuneIn, iHeart Radio, or Radio Garden (a visual station locator that uses Google Earth to let you search for radio stations in a particular city or small town).

Some stations even have their own apps that let you access their live feed and listen to any podcasts they produce. My two favorite Internet radio stations, KCRW in Santa Monica, CA, and WFPK in Louisville, KY, both have their own apps as well as appearing on TuneIn, Radio Garden, and any other Internet radio apps. You can also access them on the iTunes music player for Apple and Windows.

3. You can download it.

This seems a little stone-knives-and-bearskins these days, what with 5G and unlimited data plans, but there are still plenty of times you want to download music: 1) You aren’t going to be on wifi, like when you’re driving or flying, or 2) You don’t want to do constant streaming because you don’t want to pay for an app subscription, or you have a limited data plan.

Downloaded music can come from two sources:

  1. You already paid for it, which means you’ll never have to pay for it again. You can buy singles that you want to hear without buying the whole album, and spend $.99 or $1.29 for one song from iTunes.
  2. You can burn music from your old CDs and records, which means you don’t have to buy it in the first place. I had a CD collection in the hundreds, including a couple hundred independent and local artists you don’t find online, and I’ve burned at least half of them to my iTunes library, then loaded the best ones onto my phone.

I like the economics of downloading your own music too. If I wanted access to, say, The Police’s Synchronicity album, I could pay for Spotify for $9.99 per month — $120 per year — for the rest of my life, or I could buy the album online for $11.99 on iTunes.

The downside is that I only have the one album, as compared to having the tens of millions of songs that Spotify and Amazon Prime offer. But on the upside, I can build a music collection from a variety of sources that I can access any time without worrying whether I’m on wifi or am chewing up my data.

Of course, the best time to start figuring out your traveling music is now, weeks and months before you leave. Figure out what you like to listen to and the way you like to get it, build your favorite playlists, and learn your way around your system. That way, you’re not trying to navigate your way through a new music provider as you try to navigate the airport or highway.

How do you get your music online? What are your favorite apps, stations, and artists? Tell us all about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: PXHere.com (Creative Commons 0, Public Domain)

Five Expert Tips For a Smooth Road Trip

January 30, 2020 by · Leave a Comment 

I’ve taken enough road trips with my family, with friends, or just by myself, to have figured out most of the good and bad things about them. I actually enjoy a good road trip, including the driving. There have been many times when I will drive six or seven hours, rather than fly, because I enjoy the drive.

There's nothing like a beautiful ribbon of highway stretched out before you on the start of a road trip.Of course, I’ll always drive instead of fly if the distance is six hours or less. That’s how long it would take me to fly, including driving to the airport, getting through security, the flight, getting my rental car, and driving to the hotel. I could just drive straight to the hotel from my house in the same amount of time.

And I figure, what’s a couple extra hours here or there, so I’ll even drive for an 8-hour road trip. It’s certainly a lot cheaper than flying, especially if there’s five of us, and I don’t have to pay for a rental car.

But a road trip can be annoying and stressful if you don’t prepare accordingly. It’s not just a question of packing and getting everything to fit in your car. It’s also a question of being fully prepared so you’re not trying to fix problems on the road.

Here are five tips to make your next road trip go smoothly.

1. Clean out your car

I always try to keep my car neat and free of clutter, but even then, there are all kinds of crumbs and dirt in the footwells, the cup holders, and the little storage bay under the radio. So I vacuum out the car and wash it before I leave, so it feels like a fresh start on a grand adventure. You wouldn’t pack dirty clothes in your suitcase, so why would you leave in a dirty car?

Run your car through a car wash or wash it in the driveway, empty out all the trash, and vacuum it thoroughly. You may even want to dust the dashboard. Make it as clean as you can get it. There’s nothing like heading out on a road trip with a clean car and a full tank of gas.

2. Keep your car clean

It’s one thing to clean out your car, but it’s a whole other thing to actually keep it clean while you’re traveling, especially if you’re traveling with others. I know when you’re traveling with kids, your clean car is pretty much destroyed before you even back out of the driveway.

Still, make it a habit to clean up everything, throw away all trash, and put away toys, books, and electronic devices every time you stop for gas and meals. A cluttered space leads to a lot of stress and anxiety, and tempers start to flare when that happens. You can reduce stress if you try to keep your car as clean as when you started.

3. Pre-plan your route with both Waze and Google Maps

Google actually owns Waze, so this may be a little redundant as they both use the same data and information, but I have found this to be a useful practice. Both apps know historic travel patterns, so they can tell you where and when all the rush hour traffic jams are going to happen. (Try to get through a major city at least 30 minutes before rush hour really starts.) They also know about construction zones, and Waze will warn you about speed traps and red camera lights.

However, my one gripe with Waze is that it doesn’t show on the map where the construction zones are actually located. It will show the approximate location on a progress bar before it actually shows you the map, so you get a vague sense of whether it’s in the first third or second half of the trip. But you can tell Waze when you want to arrive, and it will tell you the best time to leave based on historic traffic data. It will even adjust your route based on historic traffic patterns so you can avoid busy highways during rush hour.

Google Maps can also do this, but it will show you the exact locations of those construction zones on the map. Plus you can plan a multi-stop route and save it as a clickable link. Put that link in a calendar event or a text or email to yourself, so you can always get back to the original route even if you have to reboot your phone.

4. Pack in a laundry basket

(I’m probably going to get in trouble for this one on a luggage blog!)

I know, this tip sounds weird, but trust me on this. We did this whenever we would travel to Florida and stay in a rental home for a week or two. It helped our packing space immensely, and we had a lot more room in the back of our car.

Several suitcases take up a lot of space when you’ve got a limited trunk space. In years past, ever family member would have their own rollaboard suitcase, but no matter how hard we tried, we always had items packed so high, it was hard to see out the back.

So one year, my wife packed everything into two laundry baskets, including shoes. It saved so much space in the back, our total luggage space barely cleared the top of the seats, and it felt like we were in a much bigger vehicle.

Of course, this tip isn’t necessary if you’re traveling on your own. In those situations, I just pack in my regular rollaboard suitcase and stow everything in the trunk, including my briefcase. I find if I can keep the car as empty as possible, including luggage, it feels so much less cluttered. (See point #2.)

5. Pack a “trip bag” for multi-day travel

It may be a “dads are so weird” cliché, but I’m telling you, packing a stopover bag for multi-day travel is almost essential. If you’re going to stop for the night on your trip, put everything into a single small case, including toiletries, sleepwear, medication, and even favorite stuffed animals. And that’s the bag you take into the hotel for the night.

The whole point is to avoid unpacking the entire car just because someone stuck their toothbrush at the bottom of their suitcase, which is in the most buried corner of the car.

So be insistent, be a nag. Do an inventory check. Pack your kids’ bags, if need be. But don’t let anyone put their essentials into their big suitcase (or in the laundry basket, if you liked tip #4) if you’re going to stop for the night. There is nothing worse than unpacking the entire car for that one small item, because you know you’re never going to get it as neatly or tightly packed as you did before you left.

(Of course, you want to be sure your car is parked in a safe, well-lit area if you’re going to do this. Otherwise, just take all your luggage into your room, but resist the urge to open it.)

How do you keep your road trips (relatively) stress-free? What do you do to get ready for a road trip? Share your suggestions with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Arfan Uddin (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)

Five Ways to Use Google Maps That Aren’t GPS

November 14, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Google Maps was a major disruption to not only the printed maps and atlas industry, but it turned the standalone GPS market on its head too. As soon as I could mount my mobile phone in my car, I started using Google Maps as my GPS to find my way around town.

(This was unfortunate, as I had just bought a GPS unit a month earlier for $200. . .)

Of course, once I discovered Waze and its real-time traffic updates and speed trap notifications, I switched from Google Maps. But there are still a lot of things I use Google Maps for, on my phone or my laptop, in town or when I travel.

I wanted to share five ways you can use Google Maps beyond just being a GPS. You can start practicing on it now before your next road trip, so everything is easy to understand and use.

1. Plan routes before you leave

Whenever I’m driving to a new location, especially out of town, I use Google Maps on my laptop to plot out my route. There are usually a few routes to choose from, and I’m always looking for problems like construction and potential traffic jams found when traveling through a big city during rush hour.

I can select the time I’ll leave or want to arrive, and Google Maps will show me the expected issues I might encounter. A lot of this data is taken from Waze, which Google owns, so it can show you historic traffic patterns based on years of data. So it can tell you where certain traffic jams can be found and at what particular time, and help you plan accordingly.

2. Find a new restaurant

When I’m in a new city, I always want to try new dishes and restaurants, rather than relying on the same old stuff I can get at home. I’ll do a quick search in the Maps search bar, just like a regular Google search, for a particular cuisine. I can click on the different results, and read the reviews and ratings to make my choice.

I can also use Maps to plan out my hotel and dining. If I’m trying to choose a hotel location, I’ll look at a few different options on Maps and then click Nearby, and do a search for restaurants. If there’s nothing close to the hotel I’m considering, I try another one.

Or when you open Maps on your phone, there are four buttons you can tap for quick searches: Restaurants, Coffee, Bars, and Hotels. Maps will search for different nearby options, and will even show you star ratings, hours of business, and customer testimonials. Some restaurants even have their menus plugged into Maps, so you can scope out a restaurant’s offerings before you go.

3. Find a business address or phone number

Back in the ’90s, I knew people who would always keep a copy of the Yellow Pages in their car. That way, if they ever had to find a business, they could pull to the side of the road, find it, locate it on their paper map, and then drive to that location.

Now, you can use Google Maps like the Yellow Pages, and find a particular business just by voice search. Tap the Navigate button, and you can drive right there, using Google Maps as your guide. (I wish it would switch over to Waze for me, but that’s just me being picky.)

You can even call the business right from their listing. Tap the Call button, and you can be connected right to the place through your own cell phone.

4. Bookmark & share your favorite locations

Screenshot of Erik Deckers' Orlando indie coffee shops on Google MapsI’m a big fan of independent coffee shops and am always looking for new shops to visit. To help keep track of the different coffee shops around Central Florida, I created the Orlando Indie Coffee Shops map on Google Maps.

This is all part of the Save feature on Google Maps, where you can save different businesses and locations on a private, public, or shared map. You can create a private map to plot out your next trip, you can create a public map of favorite restaurants, and you can create a shared map, which is a semi-private map that only people with the link can see. (So you can share your itinerary with family and friends.)

If you want to get more involved in your community’s food scene, make special maps of your favorite cuisine and share the map with your friends on social media to help spread the love. This can also help you if you want to be a Google Local Guide.

5. Become a Google Local Guide

Those reviews, ratings, and photos aren’t just gathered from other online sources. People leave those reviews, ratings, and photos themselves when they visit a new place. Google Local Guides lets you contribute to the crowdsourcing of your community’s different businesses.

You can earn points based on the number of reviews and even photos you upload. The more points you accumulate, the higher your Local Guide level. As you progress, Google will provide little gifts and perks along the way. Once I got a six-month subscription to the Washington Post, and another time, it was a pair of quirky dress socks. The last two offers just came in yesterday: six month’s free use of the Google One membership program, and an $8 coupon on Slice, the pizza finding-and-ordering app.

Google Maps has a lot more features than just being a mobile map service. It’s Yelp, the Yellow Pages, and even a crowdsourcing service all in one. Start using it in your own hometown, get used to using it, and then try to use these different features on your next trip.

How do you use Google Maps when you travel? What are some hidden features I might have missed? Share your tips and stories on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Used with permission)

How to Save Money and Time Attending a Festival in Another City

October 17, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

I recently returned from Lowell, Massachusetts and the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival where I was invited to speak and be a special guest at several of the events.

Jack Kerouac, author of the definitive road trip novel On The Road, was born and raised in Lowell. They were commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death on October 21, 1969.

I was fortunate enough to attend and participate in several of the events, which were scattered around the downtown Lowell area. I’ve attended a great number of festivals and conferences, both alone and with my family, and there are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Whether you’re attending an arts or music festival held in a park, a large film or theater festival scattered around a city, or even a comic book convention in a huge convention center, there are a few things to keep in mind to save plenty of time and money while you’re there

1. Parking will be terrible

Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, home of the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival

Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack Kerouac grew up and went to high school a few blocks from here.

Unless you’re an organizer with special parking, or you get to the location super early, you’re not going to find a great place to park. And it’s going to be somewhat expensive. When you’re figuring out your budget for the event, take your parking costs into account. I’ve seen parking go for as much as $40 per day for event parking in big cities. Meanwhile, people will stay in a hotel 10 miles from the event just to save $30 on lodging prices.

If you’re getting a place based on price, look at the price difference between the closer hotel and the cheaper hotel + ride-sharing/parking. You may find that it’s actually cheaper to get the closer, more expensive hotel because you’ll save money on parking or ride-sharing. Plus, you can come and go as you need to, rather than wasting time driving to and from the event.

2. Book your lodging EARLY

Depending on your schedule, you may be on site all day long, so you only need the hotel as a place to keep your stuff and to sleep. If that’s the case, you probably don’t care where you’re located or what kind of room you have. But if you have to show up at the festival really early or are going to stay late, you’ll probably want to be as close as possible to avoid driving time.

The closest hotels always go the fastest, which means you need to book early. In some cases, you may not even want to wait until this year’s festival is over; book now for the next year’s festival and be sure to confirm the reservation a couple of times between now and then.

Also, some events will make arrangements for special event pricing, so be sure to check in with the organizer to see if they’ve set that up.

3. Plan your schedule

Since I was in Lowell as a special speaker, nearly all of my events were already planned for me. I knew where I had to be and when, so I just spent my downtime at some of the other events or working at one of the local coffee shops.

If you’re already a regular calendar user and access it from your mobile phone, book all your events and appointments in your calendar, along with the address and any other necessary information. That way, you don’t need to access the event guide or even use their app.

Scheduling also helps you avoid conflicts and double-booking. Some festivals have multiple events and breakout sessions, others have events in different locations. Check Google Maps to see the distance between all the event venues to make sure you can make it from one to the other in plenty of time. Be sure to include the addresses in your calendar listing, because you can click the address and open up to your favorite GPS app to navigate your way there.

4. Compare the cost of Uber/Lyft versus driving and rental cars.

I think I made a big mistake in Lowell this time: I rented a car and drove everywhere. My rental car costs were $240, plus gas. I rented a car, because the airport is about 30 miles from where I needed to be. However, I think I could have saved about $40 – $50 if I had just used Lyft to go everywhere, even to and from the airport.

You can look up on Lyft and Uber’s website to get trip estimates and compare that with the cost of renting a car and gassing it up before you return it. And if you’re going to be staying in a hotel close to the event, you almost certainly won’t need a rental car, so consider ride-sharing and taxis for any surprise transportation.

5. Carry your own lunch and snacks

Event food is super expensive, although some of it can be pretty fun. I go to the Central Florida Scottish Highland Festival and Games every year, and always love the food trucks they have there. Otherwise, I try to take granola bars and a few sandwiches for a cheap lunch, rather than pay $12 for a burned-yet-still-frozen hamburger and small Coke.

However, don’t cheap out on dinners. Those times should be spent with friends, especially if you only see them at the festivals. Find someplace that’s not too close, but not several miles away either. Walking distance is usually packed with festival-goers and the ones that are far away require a lot of logistical headaches.

How do you travel for festivals and special events? What strategies do you employ to save money? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: John Phelan (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

5 Secrets to Traveling in a Big City

September 26, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

I lived for so long in a smallish city, and later in a small town, that when I moved to Indianapolis — a city of roughly 1 million people — it was very stressful to try to find my way around. Even before then, visiting was a real country-mouse-in-the-big-city adventure. But after working and driving around downtown, I got used to the chaos and constant motion going on around me, and I could navigate like a pro.

When I moved to Orlando — 2 million people — I was able to quickly adapt and find my way around, even when the city was at its busiest. Central Florida gets roughly 60 million visitors per year, which can make getting around rather nerve wracking, but the residents learn to take it all in stride.

But when I was recently in Washington DC, a city with some of the worst traffic in the entire country, I knew better than to try to navigate my way around by myself. I typically won’t do it unless I’m going to be there for a few days and I have time to figure it out, or if I’m going to be in a lot of different places all over the city.

If you’re traveling to a big city and you’re not used to it, here are a few ways you can function and get around without pulling your hair out.

1. Know that parking will be expensive.

Free parking in the big cities is about as rare as a singing unicorn. And when you do find public parking, you can bet that the parking prices will be sky high. When I was in Chicago 10 years ago, daytime parking was $50 for 8 AM – 5 PM.

There’s a very good chance you’re going to have to pay for parking at your hotel too. My Washington DC hotel charged $50 per night for parking, but it was worth it because I didn’t want to park in a public garage. They also let me leave my car there until 3 pm, which meant I didn’t have to take it with me and fight for parking at my last appointment.

If you’re staying in the city, research parking options before you even get there. Make sure your hotel has it, and consider long-term parking in a different location, like an airport, and then taking public transportation to your hotel.

2. Pick a hotel based on location, not price.

Traffic is always a big problem when traveling to a big city.When you stay in a new city, there’s going to be a lot of temptation to pick the cheapest hotel, especially if you’re trying to stay brand loyal. The problem is the cheap hotels are nowhere near the good locations; you’re going to pay a little more for easy access.

Several years ago, my father-in-law traveled to a trade show in Atlanta and stayed in a hotel his company picked for him and the company executives because it was $20 per night cheaper than the hotel right next to the convention center. The executives swore they would never stay that far from downtown again after they spent $40 per day in taxis and had to sit in rush hour traffic for an hour each way.

You may save money by getting a cheaper hotel, but you’ll end up being so far away, you’ll spend all those savings in ride sharing, taxis, or parking. Not to mention, you’ll be up to 60 minutes away from your destination, which is going to put a serious crimp in your travel plans.

3. Study maps and GPS apps before you go.

Whenever I go to a new city, I plan out for the places I want to go: the restaurants, coffee shops, meeting sites, and other attractions. I’ll even start planning before I’ve booked my hotel so I can make the best choice. However, I’ve learned I don’t really understand the city and the traffic patterns until I get there and can actually see what the city is like.

For example, I once traveled to Boston and got a hotel that I thought was easy walking distance to a conference center. And it was, as long as I didn’t mind walking along a five-lane parkway with no sidewalks. That didn’t show up on Google Maps, and I didn’t realize it until I got there.

4. Leave plenty of time to get where you’re going.

One thing you can count on in big cities is that there will always be traffic jams. You could have a traffic jam on I-4 in Orlando at 2:00 AM. (Trust me, I know.) And you could get stuck in major traffic, even traveling around the downtown area in the middle of the ay.

So check out the traffic conditions on Waze before you head out to your events to see if you need to add a little more travel time. Do the same if you’re using a ride sharing service, because they’ll be stuck in the same traffic. However, they also know the city better than you, so they’ll know the side streets to duck down to avoid the worst of it.

5. Use ride sharing or taxis

I’ve been to Washington DC twice in the last six months, and I can tell you that the smartest thing I did was to leave my car in the parking lot and take a Lyft everywhere. I was already paying for my parking but the cost of traveling everywhere on Lyft — $9 – $12 per trip — was less than I would have spent to park somewhere else.

And even if the ride sharing would have cost a little more, it was worth it to not have to drive around and around and around trying to find a parking space even remotely close to the place I needed to be. That would have added time to the actual commute time, not to mention the extra minutes spent walking from my car to the destination. And if it had been raining or beastly hot, that would have just been worse. At least with Lyft, I was able to go from door to door to wherever I needed to be.

What are your travel strategies when you’re in a big city, especially a new one? How do you find your way around? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: FrTed (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

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)

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)

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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