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 Tips to Help You Travel With Friends and Family

December 27, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Working in my wife’s family business saw us frequently traveling together, whether it was for trade shows, sales calls, or going on vacation. Every January, we would drive from northern Indiana to Atlanta for several days for our big industry trade show. After it was over, we would drive home for a week, and then turn around and drive to Orlando for a week’s vacation.

I know other families who will vacation with friends, renting a couple cabins for a week or spending a long weekend in a new city. It can be a lot of fun for everyone involved, but if you don’t plan it right, you can run into a few problems.

If you’re going to travel with friends or family, here are a few tips you need to consider.

1. Make sure you’re compatible.

Travel with friends can be fun, if you can agree on the what, where, and when. This is a group of people around a campfire at the beach.This is tough if you and your friends can’t even make it through a dinner together without someone getting irritated (even if you’re good at hiding it). If you can’t manage that, what makes you think you’re going to last an entire weekend?

Make sure you all enjoy the same things. If someone prefers museums and symphonies, while someone else prefers rock concerts and dive bars, there will always be one unhappy person on the trip. So make sure you know what your friends like before you commit to the trip.

2. Decide your itinerary early.

While I love just rolling into a new city and seeing what I can discover, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people are planners and prefer to know what they’re doing every minute.

Plan an itinerary where everyone gets something they want. Let each person pick a day or pick an activity, even if everyone else is not as enthusiastic about it. One friend may want to spend a day in a museum, even while someone else wants to go to a ballgame. Do both, and let each person introduce their friends to something they love.

Decide when you’re going to start the day. Some people prefer to sleep in until 9 and keep the party going late into the night. Others are up at 4:30 AM and ready to go by 5:00. Do not travel with those people. They’ll do terrible and awful things, like expect you to be ready to go at 5 AM too.

3. You don’t have to do EVERYTHING together

If you’re going to be gone for several days, be sure to give everyone some time to themselves. Take an afternoon and split up. If some people want to go shopping while someone else wants to go for a hike or sit by the pool, that’s fine. Not everything has to be an organized excursion.

If you’re traveling together as couples, then split up into different pairs and groups. For example, husbands and wives can pair off and do their own thing, or you can organize by activity: anyone who wants to go shopping can go shopping, anyone who wants to take a walking tour can do that. Don’t pair off by family or by gender, go by activity preference. If you’re traveling with several people, it can make for an interesting dynamic and let people get to know each other better.

4. Discuss any allergies, dietary restrictions, and medical issues in advance

Don’t pry into someone’s personal issues or health, but you should at least be aware if someone has a food allergy that might cause an issue for them. Whenever I travel with someone, I usually ask if they have a food allergy. If they say yes, I ask if it’s something they need an Epi-Pen for, but beyond that, I don’t pry.

Similarly, if you have a friend who can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t eat certain foods — vegetarians, religious restrictions, dietary preferences, food sensitivities — make sure you know that in advance so you can plan your meals accordingly.

5. Decide how you’re going to split expenses.

Most places are able to split everything out between couples and friends — restaurants, show tickets, hotel rooms and so on are all easily divided among groups. It’s the other stuff, like renting a big house, buying groceries, and paying for group excursions that can be a little tricky.

Work it all out beforehand, try to pay for as much in advance as you can, and collect the money. Use an app like Venmo or PayPal to transfer money immediately, and commit to paying each other right away. Consider putting some money in a pool for the group to pay for things like gratuities or drinks for the last evening.

Finally, make sure everyone can actually afford to go on the vacation you’re planning. Don’t book a luxury vacation and invite people who are on a Motel 6 budget. It will only create resentment and could cause some financial hardship if someone is trying to keep up and spend beyond their means.

Traveling with family and friends can be a lot of fun, if you invite the right people and do something you can all agree on. Start small with a day trip or even a weekend getaway. Figure out your compatibility with low-risk trips before you book that four-week European vacation.

Would you travel with friends or family? Is it something you’ve done, or something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy? Share your memories (and horror stories) with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: PXHere.com (Creative Commons 0)

Vacation Like Anthony Bourdain

December 13, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I’ve been on an Anthony Bourdain kick lately. I’ve always been a fan, back to his Kitchen Confidential days, and like most everyone else, I was shaken when I heard he died. So I’ve been reading and rereading articles about how he liked to travel and experience new places.

A March 2018 article in Time Magazine — 3 Things to Never Do While Traveling, According to Anthony Bourdain — explained how Bourdain liked to encounter new cities and countries, places to go, and places to avoid when you’re looking for some place to spend your vacation.

I’ve always tried to follow some of his travel dictums — like avoiding pre-packaged holiday tours and straying off the beaten path — but this article was a good reminder about what’s good and fun about travel.

So whether you’re taking family out of town for a week, or you’re just looking to tag a day or two to the end of a business trip (also called bleisure travel), here are a few of Anthony Bourdain’s secrets.

The Eiffel Tower - Anthony Bourdain says to skip trying to take a picture from the top. He says it's lethal to your soul.First of all, skip the tourist traps. Travel expert after travel expert will all tell you to skip the most popular sights just to save time and avoid lines. Besides, said Bourdain, traveling to Paris just to stand on the Eiffel Tower is “lethal to your soul” and a selfie in front of the Great Pyramids is “completely overrated.”

Imagine standing in line for four hours just to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower or to see the statue of David. And will you be able to see David all by yourself? No, you’ll be crammed in with a whole crowd of other people all raising their phones, trying to get a photo of the statue that doesn’t have a dozen other phones in front of it. Why? Just to say you saw it? In that six hours, you could visit another museum, go on a walking tour of Rome, or see a symphony or a play. You won’t be able to see it up close, and all you’ll have is a cell phone photo of your memories.

Instead, he would rather walk into a city and see what he can find. There’s something special about the serendipity of new discoveries that makes travel exciting. I like to visit a new city and find the arts neighborhoods, the places where the artists live and do their work, where the local restaurants outnumber the chains, and where the cool stores have avoided the crush of the malls.

Bourdain would land in a city and then just strike out in a direction to see what he could find, and the payoffs were almost always worth the risk.

Second, don’t try to create a schedule of all the places you have to see. Instead, explore and let the city happen to you. Serendipity, remember?

As Bourdain told Time just a few months before he died, “The sort of frenzied compression of time needed to take the tour, to see the sights, keeps you in a bubble that prevents you from having magic happen to you. Nothing unexpected or wonderful is likely to happen if you have an itinerary in Paris filled with the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.”

Third, stray off the beaten path. Look for the real moments of the city. Just catch a cab to somewhere away from the tourist traps, but still within the regular part of the city. For example, in Indianapolis, if you head just half a mile northeast from the convention center, you’ll find where all the locals like to eat and go to the theater. In Orlando, that area is Mills 50, which is about 15 – 18 miles away from Disney World. In New York City, that means going to Brooklyn, and not Times Square. Or it means instead of going to Paris, going to Brittany and Normandy instead, or even Brussels, Belgium.

For one thing, going to the less-touristy destination means you can stretch your travel dollars. Believe me, visiting Minneapolis costs a lot less than visiting Chicago, and Portland, Oregon has plenty to do and it costs a lot less than San Francisco.

Oh sure, if you’re going for that traditional, city-defining experience — music in Nashville, amusement parks in Orlando, movie stars in Hollywood — then there’s no substitute. Portland will never beat San Francisco.

But if you just want to get away, see some sites, eat some great food, and avoid doing what everyone else does, travel like Anthony Bourdain. Go where other tourists fear to tread, walk into the city and see what you can find, and never, ever fall into the same traps that waste half your day by standing in line.

What kinds of vacations do you like to take? Do you find your own adventure, or do you prefer something that other people have done so you can share the experience? Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Moonik (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Take an Accessible Vacation: How to Travel with a Wheelchair or Scooter

February 8, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Living in the Land of the Mouse and enjoying all the parks, you quickly realize how many people need assistance or have mobility issues when they travel. Whether it’s someone who walks with a cane or walking stick, someone who needs some extra time getting around, or someone who uses a wheelchair or scooter just to get through their day-to-day.

Sylvia Longmire in Rome, taking her own accessible vacation

Sylvia in Rome, Italy on her Pride Mobility scooter

My good friend, Sylvia Longmire, brought this all home for me when she became an accessible travel agent — that is, someone who specializes in arranging travel for people with mobility issues. Sylvia has MS and uses a mobility scooter. And she travels like a maniac, jetting from international locale to international locale. Last year, she was in Ireland, Denmark, Greece, and The Netherlands, all on her scooter (or a rented wheelchair), so if anyone knows about finding and booking accessibility travel, it’s her.

If you or a family member has mobility and accessibility issues, there are plenty of ways to get around by plane, train, or automobile, and to get into almost any attraction, hotel, or restaurant you’d like. A lot of it depends on what kind of accommodations you need, and whether you do your research and ask the right questions beforehand.

Another thing to keep in mind, Sylvia says, is that while the United States has the Americans with Disabilities Act to improve wheelchair access in public places, it’s not always perfect. But countries like the UK, Australia, and Germany have similar laws, so there are options if you’d like to travel outside the US.

So if you have any kind of disability, but still want to travel, you can always do it yourself, but I recommend using a travel agent like Sylvia because she knows what to look for and what kinds of questions to ask the various places you’ll be visiting and hotels you’ll be staying at. Still, if you want to do it yourself, here are the questions you need to answer before you go.

“Does your hotel have a wheelchair friendly room?” This means a door wide enough to accommodate a chair, space enough to roll around, and in some cases, a roll-in shower with a fold-down seat. I’ve heard plenty of stories from Sylvia where she asked the hotel clerk if they had accessible rooms, only to find out that only meant they had a couple bars in the shower and near the toilet. Ask the hotel manager if you really want to be sure. (And don’t be afraid to ask for a photo of the facilities.)

“Are there wheelchairs available for rent at my destination?”
There are plenty of stories about someone’s primary (or only) wheelchair getting damaged on a flight, rendering it unusable. While you don’t need to rent a chair every time you travel, you should at least make sure there’s a backup option at your destination. Keep their number in your phone in case the need comes up.

“Does your attraction have a wheelchair ramp or other options?”
Visiting the beach doesn’t have to mean sitting back on the road looking out at the ocean while everyone else is out on the sand. There are special wheelchairs with fat tires that can roll out on the beach (imagine if a wheelchair and a dune buggy had a baby), and wheelchair mats called Mobi-Mats, which are roll-up mats that can be unrolled on the sand and allow wheelchair users to get right out on the beach.

Make a list of all the places you want to visit and contact each of them to ask if they have a wheelchair ramp and/or elevator to get to other levels. Most museums, concert venues, theaters, restaurants, ballparks, and other attractions have access and special seating (when needed), but you still want to call and make sure. Again, if you’re not sure, ask. Call a couple times if you have to, because you may get contradicting information.

What are my best options?

Sylvia on a Celebrity Cruise on Formal Night, part of another accessible vacation

Sylvia on a Celebrity Cruise on Formal Night

Cruise ships are usually a good option, because many of them cater to older adults who are already dealing with mobility issues. (Sylvia loves cruises because they’re the easiest ways for wheelchair users to see the world.) The ships are built to be wheelchair friendly, have wider doors, large public spaces, and room between the tables and chairs in the dining room. Still, make sure you ask the cruise ship booking agent about any special arrangements you need to make.

Theme parks are also usually a great bet, especially the bigger ones. From what I’ve seen, Disney World and Universal Orlando are both very accessible and they have special cars, elevators, and ramps for people with mobility issues. They also rent scooters at each park.

Bottom line: if you have a disability and you want to travel, there’s a way to do it. If you’re not sure how you’re going to get it done, you can do a ton of research or you can call a travel agent and ask them for some help.

Do you have accessibility or mobility issues to consider when you travel and take vacations? If you’ve got any tips, suggestions, or ideas, please share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Sylvia Longmire (SpinTheGlobe.net, Used with permission)

How to Pack for Emergency or Unexpected Travel

September 28, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

In all those times, it’s hard to know what to pack. You can either overpack or underpack if you’re not careful, because you’re in a rush to nail down all these last minute details. Here are a few things I’ve done to make sure I’m always prepared for emergency travel.
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Travel Tech to Make Your Trips A Little Easier in 2017

August 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Every year, there are new gadgets and apps to that promise to make our traveling life a little easier. Whether it’s a cell phone attachment that works as a digital scale and a battery charger, or a coffee shop guide app that shows you all the coffee houses in the world’s major cities, there are lots of new things that can help you make your next trip much easier and enjoyable.

These are a few of the different gadgets, gizmos, and gewgaws to consider getting before your next family vacation.

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I'm on the road

Waze is one of my favorite travel tech options when I’m on the road


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How to Survive the Summer Heat on Vacation

June 29, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Living down in sunny Florida has given me a whole new appreciation for “hot summers.” Growing up in Indiana, we had plenty of hot weather, but the weather people would start to freak out if we had more than two weeks of 90+ degree temperatures.

Here in Central Florida, we started getting 90+ degree weather in May, and it won’t go away until September, which makes me realize Indiana doesn’t know how good they have it.

But life goes on, and people still come down here for summer vacation, as well as go to other hotspots like Texas, Arizona, and South Carolina. Even Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Minnesota can hit 90+ degrees for a few weeks in the summer. And this week, Phoenix is facing a week of 120+ degree days.

So unless you want to travel up to the Canadian Northern Territories this summer, you’re going to have to deal with some heat wherever you go. Some people may be miserable, other people will enjoy it, but you should know how to get through it safely, and with a minimum of discomfort. Here are a few recommendations to surviving a blazing hot summer vacation.
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How to Travel Light On a Family Vacation

February 24, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

I’ve been a long-time proponent of traveling light because I hate carrying a lot of stuff. I’ve gotten to the point in my work life that I never carry paper, and it bothers me when someone hands me a piece of paper. (I even scan business cards with my phone and hand the card back to the owner.)

Minimalism is the key to travel, and I’d rather do without something not-so-important than lug it along “just in case.” That’s how I keep my business backpack so light.

The Atlantic Ultra Hardside luggage collection

The Atlantic Ultra Hardside luggage collection

My family has been bitten by the minimalist bug as well, and we’ve spent the last several years shedding unwanted stuff in our lives. So it’s only natural that we adopt this approach to our travel, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years.
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Packing for Extended Trips

December 16, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Traveling for a long period of time means planning and packing differently than you would for, say, a weeklong trip. For one thing, unless you are highly wardrobe efficient, headed somewhere incredibly warm or very tiny in stature, it is unlikely you can fit more than about a week’s worth of clothing into a carry-on suitcase

Traveling on extended trips — what I define as two weeks or more — means you need more clothes, which could mean a bigger suitcase, which means you’re probably going to have to check your bag. On the other hand, it’s possible to travel for two weeks or more on a single carry-on. It just takes careful planning, preparation, and some laundry detergent.

When my family and I go on long vacations, always by car, we not only follow these steps, we even pack our clothes into laundry baskets and plastic packing tubs. Since we usually rent a house and not a hotel, we don’t get odd looks when we carry our stuff inside. We manage to fit everything into the back of our SUV, and I can still see over the top of it all when I’m driving.
Car stuffed with luggage
Based on my experience, here are a few ways you can pack for your extended trips without backing a moving van up to your house.

1. Check the weather AND the local standards.
Dressing for a summer in New York or Oregon is different than dressing for summer in Western Europe. In Europe, everyone dresses stylishly, which often means the “American style” of dress will get more than a few annoyed glances. That means packing your nicer clothes, which may take up a little more room than you would for an extended stay in the U.S. Plan accordingly either way. But if you follow the rest of these steps, you should still be able to manage.
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Five Things You Need To Do When You’re Stranded On Vacation

October 7, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

As I write this, it’s the day before Hurricane Matthew is supposed to hit Central Florida, and Facebook has been abuzz with everyone preparing, making sure they have enough water, medicines, batteries and devices are powered up, and so on.

It reminds me of when we lived in Central Indiana, and were occasionally faced with impending snowstorms and blizzards. Grocery stores were wiped out, people bought water, bread, and canned food. And now, grocery stores are wiped out of water, bread, and canned food.

Radar photo of Hurricane Matthew. A lot of people had to hunker down on vacation.

See that little black marker? That was us. It had stopped raining in that area, and we got a break.

Thanks to Facebook, we are now very aware of when our family and friends are snowed in, rained out, stranded, marooned, or just plain stuck on their vacation, because of bad weather. And if you’re on vacation, it could be that you’re rained out of a day’s activities, or you’re stuck in a location for several days because of bad weather.

If you find you’re going to be stuck while you’re on vacation, whether you’re in a hotel, cabin, or even someone else’s house, there are a few things you should have, or plan on doing, in order to make the time go faster, as well as to keep safe.

1. Power up all batteries and devices

Make sure every electronic device you’re going to need is always charged. Plus, any non-essential devices might be good entertainment for the kids if the power goes out. Just remember, there won’t be any wifi, so don’t count on Netflix to keep you entertained.

Always make sure you have at least one battery backup “for the adults.” If you’re in a power failure, this may help you stay informed about your situation if you go too long without power.
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