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 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 Survive Walking a Lot on Vacation

January 31, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Last week, to commemorate the ending of my family’s Disney Annual Passes (we’re switching over to Universal for a while), I decided to try the #DisneyParksChallenge. A few other friends had done it, and other people have done it on vacation, so I thought I would give it a whirl.

The goal is to visit all four Disney World Parks — Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and EPCOT — and ride the three “best” rides in each park. I changed it a bit and rode my three favorite rides. I made it, but it was definitely a challenge. Here’s what I did.

Magic Kingdom

  • Haunted Mansion
  • Big Thunder Mountain
  • The Tomorrowland People Mover (Space Mountain gives me neck pains, plus the People Mover is honestly one of my most favorite rides.)

Animal Kingdom

  • Dinosaur
  • Expedition Everest
  • Primeval Whirl (Okay, this one is a silly little rollercoaster, but I like to scream inappropriate things and make my kids laugh.)

Hollywood Studios

  • Rock n Roller Coaster
  • Tower of Terror
  • Star Tours

EPCOT

  • Test Track
  • Mission Space
  • Soarin’

Author Erik Deckers standing in front of EPCOT's Spaceship Earth. He did a lot of walking that day.When it was all done, I had walked 25,837 steps, 13.2 miles, in a span of 13 hours. I did it by myself, driving between parks, and even met up with a friend for the very first ride of the day (Haunted Mansion). And I learned a few lessons that I think are applicable to anyone who’s going to do a lot of walking on vacation, whether it’s all in one day, or several days spent wandering around a city or a bunch of theme parks.

Wear comfortable shoes. This is not the time to break in a brand new pair of shoes, or you’re going to get blisters and serious foot pain. Consider getting a new pair of running shoes, walking shoes, or boots and break them in for a month or two beforehand. If you’re traveling to Europe though, don’t wear running shoes or tennis shoes. That immediately identifies you as an American; wear stylish walking shoes instead.

Don’t carry water, buy it during the day. I saw a number of people carrying Camelbak style water backpacks. I understand that hydration is important, but unless you’re hiking somewhere in the desert or out in the countryside, you’ll have access to water. For one thing, most theme parks provide free water at all their restaurants. For another, there are public restrooms and sinks where you can get water. And in a pinch, you can always buy a bottle of water for a few bucks. But water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, and you don’t want to lug all that weight around when you can find it in literally hundreds and thousands of places around you. Skip the Camelbak if you’re in civilization.

Pack as light as you can. If you’re going to walk a lot, you want to carry as little as possible. On my little trek, I carried my phone and a Clif bar in my pocket in each park. I also had a credit card-sized phone charger in another pocket. (I forgot my 20,000 mAh battery charger!) I also charged my phone when I drove between parks, but I also charged up during a break at a restaurant with extra outlets. So carry a charging cable and an adapter cube; they’re light and can give your battery a boost if you can find a plug.

Avoid carrying a backpack. There are two types of people who carry backpacks in Disney: 1) Parents of young children, and 2) People who pack for every contingency. If you’ve got young kids, that’s understandable. You need diapers, formula, food, and so on. But don’t pack for inclement weather or drastic temperature changes unless you know they’re coming. Check the weather forecast and plan accordingly. Also, spread the load out among your party, rather than one person carrying it all. If you have to carry a pack, keep it as light as possible. However much it weighs in the morning, it will feel like five times that much by the end of the day.

Carry a couple high-protein snacks. I always made sure to have a Clif bar in one of my pockets, so if my energy flagged, I had a quick snack to keep me going. Of course, I had lunch in a cooler in the car so I could eat between parks, but if you’re walking around a city for six or seven hours, you don’t always have the time or money to get a snack every time you need a boost. So keep an energy bar, a banana, or even a peanut butter sandwich handy. It’s a lot cheaper than a coffee shop bagel or overpriced hamburger. And then get a decent lunch when you feel like it. (Maybe go before or after the normal lunch hour to avoid the big rush and long lines.)

How do you handle day-long walking trips? Is there anything you carry or don’t carry? What should we know before we head out in the morning? Share your tips and stories on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (used with permission)

Planning and Packing Tips for Your Family’s Spring Break Trip

January 17, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Spring break is coming up in a few months, which doesn’t seem possible, since we just finished with [insert preferred winter holiday here]. But Spring Break happens in March and April for most of the country, and many families plan some sort of out-of-town trip for that time period.

If you’re heading somewhere warm, like down here in Florida (or over in Texas, Arizona, and California), there are a few planning and packing tips you should plan on (and a few you should avoid) as you’re preparing for your next vacation.

One of our packing tips is to not overpack your car; ship things ahead if you need to, or buy items when you arrive.

  1. Avoid the college crowds. Some families make a mistake venturing into the college spring break destinations — Panama City Beach, Miami, Daytona Beach, etc. — not realizing how much they’re going to have to explain to their young children. Plus, these places will be so packed that you’ll have a tough time finding a place to stay, and everything will be very expensive. Keep in mind that many of the popular destinations — Disney World, Disneyland, most beaches, etc. — will be super packed too.
  2. Don’t pack your pool toys. If you want to get your kids a bunch of pool toys, bucket and shovels, and so on, wait until you get to your destination. There’s no point in packing something you can easily get at any drugstore or Walmart (we have those here in Florida). Save your luggage space and weight. In fact, consider leaving them behind when you go home. They’re cheap to buy and easy to replace, and unless you have a pool at home, you’re not going to use them for several months anyway.
  3. Don’t pack baby food and diapers. Again, we have baby food and diapers for sale down here. I’ve seen parents of babies pack an entire week’s worth of diapers in their own suitcase, only to discover their hotel is literally two blocks from a grocery store. Since extra bag fees can be as much as $50 per bag, you’d be money ahead if you just shipped the diapers. So avoid the hassle altogether and just buy the diapers once you arrive.
  4. If you fly, leave on a Friday and return on a Sunday. Flights are cheaper if you can leave on a Friday and/or return on a Sunday. So if you’re spending a whole week on vacation, make it a 10-day trip and get the lowest possible price for the time out.
  5. If you drive, leave in the middle of the night. The south-bound highways are packed on Friday and Saturday before Spring Break, and the northbound lanes are packed on Sundays. You can avoid a lot of that traffic if you leave at 3:00 in the morning. We did this for years when we drove from Indianapolis to Florida, and we saved ourselves so many headaches. Also, use the Waze app on your mobile phone to get up-to-the-minute traffic alerts.
  6. Make dinner reservations right now. If you’re staying in a Spring Break hotspot, and there are some great restaurants you want to try, book the reservations now because they’ll be gone by your vacation. If you’re not sure what you’re in the mood for, book a couple restaurants for the same night and then cancel the others a couple days beforehand, once you make up your mind. (But don’t just fail to show up. That’s inconsiderate and rude.)
  7. Avoid the clichéd destinations. Of course, the temptation is to leave the northern states and head south for warmer weather. And since it’s the middle of January, you’re probably looking at us here in Florida, wishing a January blizzard on us. (Don’t worry; we make up for it with furnace-like summers.) But Spring Break in Florida is packed! Head to a less-traditional Spring Break destination — Atlanta, GA; Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC — and skip the crowds, but enjoy the warmer weather.
  8. Protect your money. Never carry all your money in one place, and never show it all when you pay for something. Carry only one or two credit cards at all times, so if you lose one, you can still operate with another you hid in your suitcase or the hotel safe.
  9. Don’t tell social media you’re on vacation. Posting photos of your vacation only tells crooks that your house is empty, as well as your whereabouts. Thieves and other criminals browse social media for check-ins, photos, and notices that people are either not at home, or are at places not familiar to them. Save the photos for when you get home.
  10. Get travel insurance. You may only be taking a relaxing vacation at the beach to read books, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong. You can get sick or injured and get hit with unexpected medical costs or miss out on tickets and reservations you already paid for. Get insurance that will cover medical costs and replacement costs for reservations.

Where do you go for Spring Break? What kinds of packing tips do you have for those of us who will be heading out for a much-needed respite from winter weather? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

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)

7 Must-Pack Items for Your Next Vacation

November 29, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

When I go on vacation, my goal is to be away from the hotel, Airbnb, or family member’s house as much as possible. I want to be out doing things, seeing things, and experiencing a new place. Maybe it’s a house on the beach, a visit to a new city, a return trip to Indiana, or I’m at a conference, spending a couple of “bleisure” days before or after a trip.

Regardless of what I’m doing, there are a few things I always pack wherever I go. These are things you should pack for your next vacation or holiday trip.

First, make sure you have a portable battery pack to keep your phone charged while you’re out and about. There are several brands available, but I’ve always had good luck with the Anker brand of batteries. The typical battery pack is a little bigger and heavier than a mobile phone, weighing about 12 ounces, and it fits in a purse, backpack, or even a pocket. Get one that’s at least 20,000 mAH, and you’ll be able to charge an iPhone 6 or 7 times, and a Galaxy phone 5 or 6 times. Then, just charge it up each night when you’re back at your hotel or house.

Mobile phone with a battery nearly dead. Be sure to take a battery and charging cable on your next vacation.Next, be sure to carry a charging cable and USB plug with you during the day. If you can ever plug into a wall socket, even if it’s just for 20 minutes while you’re eating lunch, you can extend your phone’s battery reserves and avoid tapping into your portable battery until later. My daughter carries one in her backpack whenever we’re cruising Disney World or Universal Studios. When we stop for lunch, we can take turns getting a 15-minute boost of power.

Speaking of power, consider tossing a PowerCube, a small charging block by Allocacoc, into your suitcase. It comes with three regular plug outlets and two USB charging ports, and is just a couple inches in size. You can get PowerCubes that plug directly into the wall or come with a 5′ or 10′ extension cord. This lets you plug multiple devices into a single plug, or you can even plug another cube in and expand your charging capabilities. Perfect for the family with multiple devices and only a couple available sockets.

Finally, if you go on working vacations like I do, or you absolutely need wifi access for your devices but you’re traveling in a foreign country, consider carrying a mobile wifi hotspot like the Skyroam Solis. One of these units is $150, and costs $9 per day to operate (they have pay-as-you-go day passes for access). If you absolutely have to have wifi access during a trip, and you don’t want to pay for hotel wifi, or you’re going to be away from civilization for a time, a mobile wifi hotspot will connect up to five devices and save the day.

Be sure to take a travel pillow with you for the actual trip. I rarely take one myself, but I know plenty of people who swear by it. You can sleep sitting up without giving yourself serious neck pain, which is not a fun way to start or end a trip. One tip I’ve learned is to turn the pillow so the fattest part is supporting your head while you sleep. It keeps you from getting a painful crick in your neck, and helps you avoid the constant head dropping that happens when you first nod off.

Also, be sure to take along a few Ziploc bags. You’re supposed to use one for your 3-1-1 bag if you fly anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to roll up a few extras and tuck them into your suitcase.

  • Use snack-sized bags to pack your necklaces, one per bag. This prevents tangling.
  • Carry a couple 1-gallon bags to pack wet clothes, muddy shoes, and anything you don’t want contaminating your clean clothes.
  • Tuck an extra quart bag into your toiletries case, in case something happens to your original 3-1-1 bag.

Finally, I always like to take a book. I know, I know, I just got done telling you how to keep your gear charged up, and you could always use a Kindle or even the Kindle app on your phone to read e-books. But there are times that a regular book just feels better. I love the tactile experience, and some books even have that lovely smell that only a book lover can appreciate. Plus, you can read a book on a plane, a book won’t chew up your battery life, and it’s not a devastating loss if you lose a book. Besides, you never want to use your phone to kill a bug you found in your hotel bathroom.

How do you pack for holiday vacations? Where do you go, to visit family or have a family getaway? Share your tips and stories with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Pexels.com (Creative Commons 0)

Twelve Holiday Travel Tips for 2018

November 15, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Thanksgiving is coming up in a week, which is going to kick off the holiday travel season. Three major religious groups have holidays in the month of December, which means there are going to be plenty of people traveling for The Holidays, which means lines and long waits, plenty of traffic and crowded airports. Here are a few tips to make your holiday travel less stressful.

1. Book everything NOW

Airline tickets, rental cars, hotel rooms and Airbnbs are all going fast, and you’re going to have a tough time finding any room at the inn, or a way to get there. And it’s only going to get harder as we get closer. Book your travel arrangements now, and then confirm them by phone a day or two before your travel days. You’d be surprised — or maybe you wouldn’t — at the number of travel plans that go awry because of a glitch.

2. Have gifts delivered to your destination

Many presents loaded into the back of a car. One of our holiday travel tips is to have your gifts delivered to your destination.Unless you’re just loading everyone into the car, don’t try to pack and carry all your gifts. Order them from your favorite online store and have them delivered to your destination. This beats trying to pack everything into your suitcase and checking it. If you have to pay to check your bag, you probably could have shipped your gifts for the same price. (Or for free, if you have Amazon Prime or your online store offers free shipping.)

Also, don’t try to time it so the packages coincide with your arrival. Order them as soon as you can — delivered in your name — so they arrive a few days before you open them. This gives you a little cushion in case something goes wrong.

But if you decide to take your gifts with you on the plane, don’t wrap them, since they may need to be checked at security.

3. Get travel insurance

Airlines are not very forgiving if you ever have to cancel your travel plans because of illness. You won’t be able to get a refund, although they might let you exchange your tickets. The same is true for many other travel providers. Travel insurance can help you recover your costs, even if they can’t help you salvage a vacation.

Travel insurance is also helpful if you get sick or injured while you’re traveling, especially when you’re overseas, and require medical attention. Your own medical insurance will probably not cover you when you’re out of the country, or even out of your network, so double-check what it will cover when you’re traveling, and make sure your travel insurance covers medical costs.

4. Pack only what will fit in a carry-on

Only take carry-ons, and try not to check any bags. If you roll your clothes and pack thinner layers, you can get up to 10 days’ worth of clothes in a standard carry-on, and never need a checked bag. Remember, you’re going for a short holiday vacation, you’re not moving there.

How are you going to do that, you ask? Here are seven additional tips:

  1. Roll your clothes, don’t fold them. Rolling takes up less space and results in fewer wrinkles.
  2. Pack half as many clothes as you think you’ll need and then do laundry one day while you’re there.
  3. Mix and match outfits. Rather than packing individual and unique outfits for each day, wear colors from the same palette so different shirts and pants go together.
  4. Only pack one bulky sweater. Take thinner layers and a pullover fleece to keep warm. You can swap out the t-shirt/undergarments, and re-wear over layers to save space.
  5. Don’t take your own pillow. I’ve seen people check two suitcases and take a carry-on because they packed their winter parka and pillows from home.
  6. Don’t take a lot of books and things you “hope” to do. Put books on a Kindle or tablet, and look for things to do at your destination.
  7. Rather than trying to take big toiletries, like hair spray or big shampoo bottles, just buy what you need when you’re there. Again, if this can save you from checking a bag, you’re saving anywhere from $25 – $50.

5. Be polite and patient

Traveling can be stressful throughout the year, but when everyone’s doing it, things tend to get a little stressful and we’re more likely to let our emotions get the best of us. As Marcie Boyle, a travel agent in Chesterfield, MI recently told USA TODAY:

Expect that everyone believes their trip is more important than yours. Expect the airports and planes to be crowded. Expect security, restroom, and restaurant lines to be extra-long. Expect to encounter less experienced travelers who may not know the tricks for getting through an airport quickly.

In short, just remember that everyone has a place to go, and the professionals are doing their best to get everyone there. If you blow your top at a ticket agent, not only are you going to ruin their day, but you may not get what you were hoping to get.

Remember, gate agents have the power to say “yes” and “no” to whatever you need, and yelling at them won’t get a “yes.” I’ve been in a few situations where the person in front of me yelled and screamed at a gate agent, and couldn’t get a ticket to another flight. But when I showed up, as sweet as honey, not only did I get the ticket I needed, I even got a food voucher.

So be nice, be polite. Remember, this is the season for family and togetherness. If you can be patient, pack light, and plan ahead as much as possible, you’ll be able to arrive at your holiday destination with a minimum fuss and stress, and be able to enjoy your holiday, whichever one you celebrate.

How do you pack for holiday vacations? Where do you go, to visit family or have a family getaway? Share your tips and stories with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Frank Jania (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Use Home Automation to Help With Your Travels

October 12, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advanced Home Automation for the Traveler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Avoid Getting Sick Before Your Vacation

September 13, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough

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

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

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

2. Get plenty of sleep.

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

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

3. Stay hydrated

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

Make sure you wash your hands after you do this!

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

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

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

4. Wash your hands for 20 seconds

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

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

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

5. Take your medicine if you start to feel sick

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: PXhere.com (Creative Commons 0)

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