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)

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 Lessons Learned on a Multi-Stop Road Trip

April 11, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Taking a road trip that lasts several days brings challenges and special problems, but they’re not that hard. Even if it’s just a one-day drive, it’s fairly straightforward: Drive to the place, stop a few times for a break, spend your time there, and drive back.

You’ll want to pre-plan your route and some of your stops, of course, as well as any hotel reservations, but the journey can be simple enough thanks to Google Maps and Waze.

But a multi-stop road trip has a few extra issues that can vastly complicate things. Staying in multiple cities and hotels, meeting with different people, going to different events — there are a lot more moving parts that can make your trip a bit difficult.

I recently finished up a week-long speaking tour that had me in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. I drove from Orlando, stayed in the different cities where I was speaking, and would drive to the next city as soon as I was done. That way, I woke up in the next city, rather than in the old one.

When it was done, I drove over 2,000 miles, visited five different cities, and gave 13 different talks. These are the lessons I learned.

1. Rent a car.

If you’ve got an older car, or it’s a little small for a big trip, consider renting a car instead of cramming everyone into yours. This is especially helpful if you’re taking a much longer trip and don’t want to put all the mileage on your car. My trip was over 2,000 miles and while I’m hoping to get 300,000 miles out my car, I didn’t want to put that many on in one week.

You may even want to get a slightly bigger car than you have so you can be a little more comfortable. But if you’re driving a thousand miles or more, don’t ignore the gas mileage. I made the mistake once of accepting an upgrade to a Jeep Wrangler for an 800-mile trip, even though I had requested a Nissan. The gas mileage on the Jeep was half of the Nissan, and so my gas costs doubled.

Also, don’t let them talk you into the GPS option since you’ve got one on your phone. You can also skip the Sirius-XM radio and listen to podcasts or even subscribe to the Sirius-XM service for a month. Get some kind of temporary dashboard mount for your phone and keep your GPS on at all times. Just don’t forget to take it with you when you return the car.

2. Put your destinations in your calendar.

Somewhere in Tennessee. Be sure to stop and look around on your next road trip.

Somewhere in Tennessee. Be sure to stop and look around on your next road trip.

I did a little overkill on my planning here: I blocked off all my actual speaking appointments and created appointments for the drives to the destinations. That way, I could put in each address of each appointment. I even did this for my car rental and hotel stays in the calendar and included the confirmation numbers in the notes section.

That’s because I can set my iPhone’s default map app for Apple Maps, Google Maps, or Waze. I use Waze all the time, so that’s my default. Whenever I open a calendar appointment, I can tap the location, and Waze will open and find the route to my destination. I don’t have to search for the address and type it into the search bar. It’s especially useful if I’m in a hurry later.

(To set your default map, open your Google Calendar, open the Settings, and open Apps from Google. You’ll find it there.)

3. Set planned drives, and turn on the Tell Me When to Leave function.

You can also save some time if you schedule all your drives in Waze. You’ll start by entering the address of your destination and then the day and time you want to leave or arrive. Then, as you get into your car for the next leg of the trip, open Waze, pull up the Planned Drives list, and tap your next destination. You can even connect your calendar so you’re automatically notified when it’s time to leave based on the current and expected traffic patterns. (Do this in Waze’s settings.)

A few days before you leave, set up all your Waze preferences too, including favorite gas station brands, whether to avoid tolls and highways, and even the kinds of alerts you want to hear.

Otherwise, if you’re running your sound through your car stereo, Waze can get annoying as it tells you about every pothole and car on the side of the road. You can turn off individual alerts under the Alerts & Reports settings. I turned most of mine off, only keeping on the police alerts.

4. Take a laundry bag.

In the past, when I’ve taken long trips, it’s always been easier because I just unpack and put dirty clothes into my empty suitcase. (Of course, I keep them folded so I can fit everything back in again.) Then, when it’s time to leave, I don’t have to track everything down.

This time, moving from place to place, I kept everything in my bag, but I realized on Day 2 that I didn’t want to root through dirty clothes to find a clean pair of socks. So I stuffed my dirty laundry into a plastic shopping bag. It certainly made finding clean clothes easier, my suitcase got lighter every day, and I kept the laundry bag in the car.

5. Keep the car clean.

One very important lesson I learned a long time ago was the importance of a clean car or a clean office. As Anthony Bourdain stressed over and over in Kitchen Confidential, if you have a messy mise-en-place (“meez on ploss”), you can’t find anything and your brain can’t function properly. It can increase your stress level, which can make an already stressful situation worse.

As Bourdain said in his book,

If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of a rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, bread crumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side towel. “You see this?” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now.”

It’s so easy to just let the fast food sacks, empty cups and bottles, and snack wrappers pile up, throwing them into a foot well. And if you’re traveling with kids, it’s like the few toys and games they brought multiplied exponentially, and now the car is messier than their rooms.

Make it a habit to always through away your trash at every stop. Dump out all the cups and bottles, even if you stop just for a quick fill-up. Keep your kids’ toys and games in a bag and stow it in the trunk. Only give them one item for each leg of the trip. When they get tired of it, switch it out for another item once you stop again. Don’t just keep the bag in the front passenger seat, because then their stuff is cluttering up your own foot space, and it can be uncomfortable.

I took a solo 2,000-mile trip, and I actually had a good time. I enjoyed my time in the car, caught up on all my podcasts, and even enjoyed a few new ones. I made it to my destinations, was able to navigate easily, and it could not have been more smooth. It makes me want to do another tour in a few months.

How do you handle long road trips with many stops? If you’re a traveling salesperson or consultant, how do you navigate between destinations? Share your ideas with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Used with permission)

How to Avoid Getting Sick Before Your Vacation

September 13, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough

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

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

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

2. Get plenty of sleep.

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

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

3. Stay hydrated

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

Make sure you wash your hands after you do this!

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

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

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

4. Wash your hands for 20 seconds

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

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

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

5. Take your medicine if you start to feel sick

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: PXhere.com (Creative Commons 0)

Should You Purchase Travel Insurance for a Family Vacation?

July 12, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting old, but I’ve started buying travel insurance for my business flights.

It’s like that scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — not the new one with Benedict Cumberbatch, but the one from 1982, which is another sign that I’m getting old — when Kirk is dismayed to learn he needs to wear reading glasses, and is embarrassed to be seen using them during the final epic battle.

Maybe things aren’t as dire as that, but I still had that sense of reluctance three years ago when I clicked the button to buy $28 travel insurance for a flight.

It made sense though. I was spending $300+ on a business flight during the stormy season here in Orlando, and there was a good chance my flight could be delayed, which would have seriously hurt the whole purpose of the trip.

Then, the unthinkable happened: I started wondering about whether it was necessary to purchase travel insurance for family trips too.

Short answer, Yes.

Longer answer, Yes because. . .

Yes, because if you’re flying to your destination and have to cancel because of illness, you don’t want to be out the cost of the tickets. Airlines don’t give reimbursements for illness, only mechanical failures and only if you don’t take another flight and file a claim on time.

Yes, because if you spend the entire trip in the hotel and have to cancel all of your reservations, park tickets, helicopter rides, ski lift tickets, or scuba diving lessons, you don’t want to be out that much money. (If you’re sick, however, you have to show proof, like paperwork and forms from a doctor’s visit. They don’t just take your word for it.)

A blizzard in Bilerica, Massachusetts in 2013.Yes, because if you get sick enough that you have to see a doctor or go to the hospital, you don’t want to have to pay out-of-pocket expense or out-of-network non-insured medical costs. (Save those forms!)

Yes, because if you get sick in a foreign country, your medical costs could be much, much higher because you’re a foreigner.

Yes, because if your trip gets canceled due to weather and you missed your vacation window because of a week-long blizzard (it happened to dozens of families this past winter trying to fly to Florida from Boston), you want to be able to reuse that money for another trip.

Yes, because if you or your spouse gets laid off from your job after you’ve already made your reservations and bought your tickets, you can’t expect a full refund. Remember, airlines only give reimbursements when a cancellation is their fault. You might be able to cancel your hotel, but you won’t get a refund on those park tickets or sporting event passes.

Yes, because even if you take a car trip instead of a plane trip, all of those other things — reservation and ticket cancellations, illnesses — can still happen just as easily. You can still spend all week in the hotel, or still be snowed in your garage, or still cancel that trip to the beach because of Hurricane You’re-Never-Going-To-See-The-Beach-Again. Maybe you didn’t buy plane tickets, but you could still have to cancel or cut a trip short because of an unforeseen problem.

The TravelInsuranceReview.net website lists several different kinds of coverage you can get, and it really makes you realize all the things that could go wrong.

Most Popular Coverage Criteria

  • Emergency Medical (at least $50,000)
  • Medical Evacuation (at least $100,000)
  • Pre-existing Medical Conditions
  • Cancel For Any Reason
  • Hazardous Sports
  • Hurricanes & Weather
  • Terrorism
  • Employment Layoffs
  • Missed Connections
  • Rental Car Coverage
  • (There’s a lot more to it, so be sure to read the article.)

    You also want to make sure you buy the right kind of travel insurance. Make sure you’re covered for things like cancellation due to weather, medical costs, and medical evacuation (transportation to the nearest hospital, even if you’re in another country).

    Be sure to read up on selecting travel insurance (I liked this article from REI, the outdoor gear people), and make sure that your travel insurance policy will cover you and the things that could possibly go wrong. Some travel insurance policies may not automatically cover weather-related problems or terrorism, so check that out in advance before you buy your policy.

    Also, some credit cards, like the American Card Platinum, automatically have some travel insurance coverage, such as flight cancellation and even rental car insurance, so make sure you know what they cover before you leave. Don’t assume that it will handle everything for you though; you may need additional coverage for other possible problems.

    Have you ever been on a trip where you needed travel insurance? Did you have it? How did that trip go? Give us your advice or words of warning in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Game Freak2600 (Wikimedia Commons, Public GNU Free Documentation License)

    How to Survive Your Summer Vacation

    June 28, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    When I was growing up, my family’s idea of summer vacation was to pile into our 1971 Plymouth Duster, which did not have air conditioning, and take a 4-day camping trip out to visit my parents’ families in Portland, Oregon.

    At the end of each day, my dad would wrestle up a heavy canvas tent that made him sweat and swear more than he did the entire rest of the year. The tent was apparently designed to hold heat in, which was great if you were camping in, say, November in the North Pole. But this was the Southwest (or the Plains, depending on our route) in July and August, which meant the tent was usually 200 degrees hotter than it was outside.

    To cook dinner, my mom would set a pot of stew in the tent for 20 minutes. Immediately afterward, we would go to sleep in our little canvas oven so we could have another day-long drive with the windows down.

    After spending a couple weeks in Oregon, visiting people I barely knew, we would turn around and drive back to Muncie, Indiana, in a little over two days, mostly because my dad was tired of all of us and just wanted the trip to be over.

    Analog thermometer like a clock, temperature hand is on 123 degrees. Terrible way to spend summer vacation.It was not my idea of a good time, and I never understood why we did it. I mean, why couldn’t these people ever fly or drive out to visit us? Why were we always the ones making the drive through America’s Oven to see them?

    Now that I live in Orlando, and just finished a short weekend trip to Atlanta, I realize how much better I have things now than I did back in the early 70s. People may pine for the days when they were young and carefree, but at least air conditioning is standard in most cars these days.

    If you’re going to take a summer driving trip, here are a few things you need to know (and do) before you actually pile into the car.

      1. Get your car fully serviced. Tell them where you’re going and what you’re planning on doing. Your mechanic may suggest a different viscosity of oil if you’re going to be driving in a super-hot climate like, say, Death Valley, on the surface of the sun, or Florida. Make sure your AC is fully functioning too.
      2. Join the AAA Auto Club. The first time your car breaks down, you’ll be glad you’re covered. Plus they’ve got all kinds of discounts at various hotels and restaurants.
      3. Take a few pictures of the family before you leave. This is the happiest you will be for a while. You’ll want to remember this time.
      4. Don’t pack for every day of the trip. We’ve talked about packing lightly before. Take enough clothes to get you halfway through the trip, and do some laundry on your rest day.
      5. Never pack for “just in case.” Don’t take a nice outfit “just in case” you go to a nice restaurant. Either make the reservations so you know in advance, or plan on not going. “Just in case” wastes space.
      6. Don’t take more than one book. I don’t know how many trips I’ve taken where I took three or four books along to read, only to never touch them. Take one book you’ve been dying to read, or buy one on the trip. Better yet, just read on your Kindle. I took two books with me on my trip to Atlanta and ended up buying two others, which I started reading instead.
      7. Stick to the highways. If something happens, you’ll be easier to find (and you can find assistance more easily) if you’re on the highway than if you decide to take the scenic route along some state highways.
      8. Make hotel reservations if you can stick to a schedule, take your chances if you can’t. Depending on how fast you drive and how disciplined you are in sticking to a schedule, you’ll either want to make reservations to make sure you’ve got a place to stay, or just stop when you feel like it and hope you can find a room. If you do the latter, use Google Maps, TripAdvisor, or the iExit app to see which hotels are ahead. Call them directly (not the HQ’s 800 number), and book your room. It also helps to be a member of their frequent traveler club.
      9. Pack a hotel bag. As a dad, there’s nothing worse than unpacking your entire car each night and repacking it each morning. Either pack one travel bag with everyone’s toiletries and nightwear, or make them pack their own, and only allow them to take that bag into the hotel each night. Run a chain and padlock through all of the big suitcases and charge a $10 unloading fee for anyone who needs to get something out of their big suitcase. Otherwise things get lost, left behind, or your stuff expands so it’s bigger than the trunk.
      10. Synchronize your bladders. Another dad rule, and this one may be more important than the hotel bag (if such a thing is possible). But I promise you that this one is critical. I was always frustrated that my family and I could turn a 16-hour drive down to Orlando into a 20-hour odyssey worthy of the Greek poets. I realized it was because we stopped every time the gas tank was half-full, and then again when someone “forgot” to pee. Each break took at least 20 minutes, and we stopped every 2 hours. That added roughly 2.5 hours per trip for non-meal stops. When we stopped when we were down to a quarter tank, we stopped every 2.5 hours and cut almost an hour off the total drive. If you want to get to your destination faster, insist that everyone use the bathroom at every stop, even if they “don’t have to.” (Because they do. They absolutely do. They’re lying if they say otherwise.)

    How do you survive summer vacations? Is it a joy and pleasure, or something that fills you with a sick dread? Share your tips, suggestions, and war stories in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: digitalphotolinds (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

    How to Leave Your Car Behind on Long Vacation

    June 21, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    I recently posted a question on Facebook:

    You’re going to spend three months living and working in another city on a long vacation. What’s the number of miles you would drive versus fly in order to have your own car? That is, anything over X, you’d fly; anything under X, you would drive.

    Of course, because it’s Facebook, and because no one knows how to give a simple answer, there were plenty of longish “it depends” answers.

    I mean, I was just looking for answers like “1,500 miles,” but it’s fine. You know, it’s just fine.

    The Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida. My residency here was like a long vacation.

    The Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. Luckily I had my car with me.

    Here in Orlando, I’m on the board of directors at the Jack Kerouac House, which is near downtown, and about 20 miles from the theme parks. Every quarter, we have one writer-in-residence who lives by themselves in the house for three months. Some of them are close enough that they’re able to drive to Orlando, but others live so far away, they need to fly in and live without a car. Of course, they’re working on their writing, so it’s not like they need to get around the city on a daily basis.

    When I was a resident two years ago, I had already moved to Orlando, so I was able to drive, but our last few residents have flown in from elsewhere, so they were without easily-accessible transportation during their stay.

    That got me to thinking, if you were to go on a long vacation, how would you get around? Having taken long business trips to Europe, as well as longer vacations without readily-accessible transportation, I’ve found a few workarounds for those times I need to be somewhere without my own car. Other times, I’ve been stuck in one place until I could find a way to get where I need.

    If you’re going to take a long vacation that’s going to leave you without your car, here are a few ways to get around.

    First, check out the public transportation situation. If this is going to be a factor in your vacation decision, then don’t go somewhere where you need public transportation. Los Angeles is a widespread, car-necessary city, San Francisco is compact, walkable, and they have decent public transportation. European cities have great public transportation (many people don’t even own cars), but the countryside does not. If you have to choose between destinations, go to the place where they’ve got buses, trams, and subways, rather than depending on a car.

    Second, get a hotel or lodging close to your attractions. For example, if you’re staying at Disney World, it might be cheaper to get a hotel outside the park, but you’re going to spend your savings in transportation just to get into the park, whether you use Uber/Lyft, take a cab, or get a rental car (plus it costs $20 per day to park at Disney World). You’re better off spending the money to get a room on property, and taking the free shuttle or monorail to the parks.

    The same goes for staying in the downtown area of the big cities — hotel parking in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to name a few, can cost between $20 and $60 per night. Depending on where you’re going, that’s a couple of Uber rides per day. And if the weather is right, you can walk or even take a bike share bike, if one is available. Finally, get a hotel that has a shuttle. Some hotels only have airport shuttles, while others have a shuttle that serves as a local cab, driving you up to a couple miles away. Just remember to tip your driver.

    Third, research the availability of ride sharing programs like Uber and Lyft. I prefer Lyft, and usually take it when I’m in a new city. I used it on a trip to Dallas a few months ago, and have used it in other cities. It was a nice alternative to renting a car and finding my way around. However, it can be pretty pricey to catch a ride everywhere, so try to schedule your itinerary so you’re only taking one ride to and from your locations. Also, some cities don’t allow ride sharing, so you can either take a cab or pick another city.

    What’s the bicycle situation? At the Kerouac House, the writers have use of a bicycle to get around. And since most of the cool non-touristy stuff to do is just a few miles from the house, they can just hop on and ride whenever they want. If you’re going to be traveling for a few weeks, look at the price for renting a bicycle.

    Or depending on where you’re staying, you may even consider just buying a bicycle. You can get a serviceable cheap bike for less than $200, which if you compare it to everything you could spend on ride sharing or rental cars, could end up being quite a bit less. Then, when you’re finished, donate it to a local organization or give it to your host.

    You could always just walk. We all need to work out and stay in shape anyway, right? So why not use this opportunity as a way to get in some steps. If you can, just walk the few blocks to your next destination, save a little money, and spend some time outside.

    Whether you’re visiting family and friends for an extended period, or are even moving to a new city for a few months, transportation is going to be a big issue, and can be your most expensive budget item after lodging. Be sure to consider how you’re going to get around when you book your trip.

    How do you travel without your car? Or is that not even an option? Share your tips and suggestions in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Used with permission)

    How to Make Vacation Costs Less Painful

    March 29, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    Before we moved to Florida two years ago, my family of five took an annual vacation down to Orlando every year for six years. It wasn’t always a Disney World trip, but it was a chance to get a break from the cold and snow of Indiana and to bask in the warmth of Central Florida.

    And we didn’t always have the money for an expensive trip, but we were certainly able to have a fun time, all without breaking the bank or putting ourselves in terrible debt. It started with a little pre-planning the year before, which lightened the load. Here’s how we did it.

    1. Driving is Cheaper than Flying

    It may be a huge pain, but we would drive from Indianapolis to Orlando in about 20 hours. For a while, we did it in a single day, which was awful. After a while, we switched to two days which was fine, but usually added $250 to the trip, including the hotel nights and extra meals.

    Still, it certainly beats five tickets at $400 apiece (although I certainly envy the two-hour flight time). We could drive 1,000 miles, visit the grocery store for breakfast and lunch, and then hit a decent restaurant for dinner, all for around $150. If we wanted to stop in a hotel, we would stay at the Holiday Inn Express near Macon, Georgia. We weren’t going for comfort and luxury there. We wanted something clean, comfortable, and safe. All told, the 2-day trip cost between $250 –$300 each way, and was still cheaper than flying. Plus we had our car once we were in town.

    2. Buy gift cards throughout the year

    Epcot in Orlando, Florida during the Flower and Garden Festival in May. One of my favorite vacations.

    Epcot during the Flower and Garden Festival in May

    One strategy we had to cut travel costs was to buy gift cards during the year and keep them in an envelope. My wife would buy $25 gift cards for Shell gas or Outback restaurant once a month. We had traveled enough times on this route that we knew where to stop to use them.

    While it didn’t save us any money, we didn’t have to come up with a fistful of cash all at once just to cover the drive. By getting the gift cards, we were able to sock away some savings without actually putting the money in a savings account. (We tried that a couple times, but always had some emergency or other that required us to “borrow” from the savings and never put it back.)

    3. Plan your activities, book ahead when possible

    If you’re watching your vacation budget carefully, this is where you have to be hard-nosed. You will be sorely tempted to “just this once” add a new activity to your itinerary. It could be a tour or show, or some other amazing attraction that caught your eye, but it inflates your total costs. It’s worse if you show up without any plans at all, because you won’t really keep track of what you’re spending, and you can easily go overboard.

    Instead, schedule out your activities and book the tickets in advance throughout the year. That way, you don’t have to cough up the cash right at that moment (see #2 above). Then, when temptation rears its ugly head, you have to stick to the schedule, and either refuse to be tempted or be willing to give up another activity (or activities) so you can pay for the new one. And if you’ve already bought the tickets, you’ll be even less tempted than before.

    4. Plan for rest days

    There’s a lot of truth to the old joke of “needing a vacation from our vacation.” When we would return home from Orlando, we would be exhausted, and not just because we drove 20 hours straight. We had spent days and days walking around the theme parks, visiting friends, or popping over to the beach for a day. We were exhausted. Plus, it’s expensive to do something every day.

    We finally got smart and started blocking in rest days into our schedule. Those were the days we stayed around the rental house, spent time in the pool, or visited different parts of the city. We didn’t have anywhere to be, and best of all, we didn’t have to spend any money.

    Even that one day of not doing anything gave us a chance to sleep in, take a nap, or just recover from the drive and last few days of activity. It also helped us reduce our costs, because we were just able to eat at home instead of going out.

    How do you reduce your vacation costs without reducing the enjoyment? Do you have any cost-saving measures you can recommend? If you’ve got any tips, suggestions, or ideas, please share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Erik Deckers, used with permission

    How to Travel Comfortably if You’re, um, Bigger

    March 15, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

    I’m not a small guy. I’m 6′ 2″ and I weigh “I-buy-XXL-shirts” pounds. That means I’m taller than average and heavier than average, which makes it a bit difficult to travel comfortably. In fact, just last week, I flew from Orlando to Indianapolis and back again in 48 hours, and then drove to Tampa as soon as I landed. I’ll also be flying to Dallas next month and may be on a plane a couple more times this year. And trying to travel comfortably on the plane isn’t always easy.

    If I want to be comfortable in my travels, there are a few things I do to ensure it’s not unpleasant.

    Fly Economy Plus or better

    I’m tall enough that if I ride in regular economy, my knees are always jammed up against the seat in front of me, so I always pay a little extra for the Economy Plus seating. The legroom is a little more,, and that alone is worth the extra costs. Plus, I’ve noticed that the seatbelts are a little longer, which means they fit better and I don’t crush my bladder whenever I fasten my seatbelt.

    And as an Economy Plus member, I can always board right after their top priority club members and first class passengers, which means I can always get a spot for my bag in the overhead bin.

    If you’re several inches taller than me, you can spring for an exit row seat or a first class seat. And if you’re wider than me, you may either have to buy a second seat (which some airlines require), or upgrade to business or first class. But give Economy Plus a try if you need just a few inches to spare.

    Drive 7 hours or less instead of flying

    The author at a reading in Pensacola, Florida. I try to travel comfortably whenever I have to go anywhere.

    Yours truly reading humor at the Foo Foo Festival in Pensacola, Florida. We drove 8 hours to get there, because it was just easier and more comfortable.

    When I lived in Indianapolis, I could get to Chicago in 3 hours, Nashville in 5, and Madison, Wisconsin in 7. Since a regular plane trip from Indianapolis to most places would take 6 hours from my house to my hotel, I always drove my car for any road trip that I could do in six or seven hours.

    That’s because a normal flight, from door to door, took six hours. If I left my house at 6:00 am, I could drive 45 minutes to the airport, pay for parking, get there two hours early, fly for an hour, get a rental car, and drive 45 minutes to my hotel. And I would get there around noon.

    Or I could drive my car round trip for the price of four tanks of gas. I would leave my house at 6:00 am, and get to the hotel by noon. I saved a lot of money, I took the same amount of time, but I was also more comfortable and had the use of my car to boot. (If I was going to be somewhere for several days, but it was a 7 or 8 hour car trip, I would still drive so I wouldn’t need to rent a car.)

    Be confident

    This is a tough one. On one of my legs up to Indianapolis last week, my seatbelt was 4 inches too short. Never mind that every other belt on every other flight was just fine. Airlines just seem to put random length seat belts on all their seats, although it’s worse in economy seating. Economy Plus seatbelts seem to be bit longer and I rarely find one that’s too short, which is another reason I pay for the upgrade.

    But that wasn’t true in this case; this time, the belt was just a few inches too short, so I had to ask for a lap belt extension.

    I didn’t like doing it, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But I’ve been able to fit every other flight I’ve been on, plus I’ve lost 20 pounds, so I knew it wasn’t me.

    I decided confidence was the key to surviving this with my dignity intact. I held my head up high, looked the flight attendant square in the eye, and very quietly whispered, “Can I have a belt extension please?”

    Trust me, it sucked. Like I had to admit I was too big to fly like a normal person. But the alternative was to be completely unsafe and embarrassed if the flight attendant publicly called me out for not fastening my seat belt. Plus I could have easily been hurt if we hit some major turbulence. So I asked for the extension and I was able to fly comfortably.

    Traveling is difficult enough already, but it’s even more difficult when you need more room than other people. So you have three choices, be extremely uncomfortable, pay for the extra room, or never go anywhere. I personally like to see the world, but I don’t want to be uncomfortable, so I’ll drive or pay for upgrades whenever I travel.

    And I’ll be happy with who I am and how I look, and if other people don’t like it, that’s tough.

    Do you do anything special to ensure you travel comfortably? Do you have any tips for us? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

    Photo credit: Erik Deckers (used with permission)

    Four Spring Break Ideas for the Whole Family

    January 11, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

    1. Portland, Oregon

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

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

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

    2. Nashville, Tennessee

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

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

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

    3. Dallas, Texas

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

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

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

    4. St. Augustine, Florida

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

    Aviles Street in St. Augustine, Florida

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

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

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

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

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

    Phoo credit: paulbr7 (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

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