Essential gear for traveling with young children

This year holds a great amount of travel for my family and me, so I’ve been trying out dependable and useful gear to make it more manageable. With two kids — one being an infant — I have a lot of needs that go beyond a regular suitcase when we’re on the road.

For starters, I continue to be a huge fan of the ZÜCA Pro suitcase. I’ve been using it since 2008 and it’s the bag I use every time I travel, when I’m alone or with the whole family. It fits into overhead bins on all but the smallest airplanes and it is rugged. The frame allows weary travelers a place to sit, the wheels make it incredibly simple to maneuver, and my MacBook Air fits easily into the side pocket.

I also travel wearing a Scottevest women’s trench coat. I use it instead of a purse unless my destination is super cold. A ridiculous amount of stuff — phone, wallet, keys, Kindle, water bottle, passport, earphones, pens/pencils, tissues, snack food, bottle, zip-top bag of formula, pacifier, burp cloth, diapers — fits in it. It’s incredibly convenient, especially when traveling with kids, because it keeps both of my hands free.

Last year, Eagle Creek contacted me to see if I would be interested in reviewing any of their products. I’d been using a Pack-It toiletry travel bag and really liked it, so I thought it would be nice to see what else they offered and if any of their products worked for our needs.

Two of the items they sent have become staples in our family’s travel gear.

The first items are their Compression Sacs. I had always liked the idea of vacuum compression bags but never could figure out how to get my hands on a vacuum for the return trip home. A hotel room might have a vacuum in the closet, but in all my years of travel I never found one with a hose attachment. I had been using large Ziplock XL bags, but after a couple trips the bags were getting ratty and didn’t really compress all that much. I’m still a fan of them and use them around the house for items in longterm storage, but they just don’t hold up for our travel demands.

Conversely, Eagle Creek’s Compression Sacs are extremely durable, made of a reinforced nylon, and are actually useful. After four trips, they are showing no sign of wear. Best of all, they don’t require a vacuum to get out the air, so they work both coming and going on a trip. You just roll the air out of them, and compress down a bunch of bulky clothes. They are awesome for things like coats and baby clothes. They really do save space. We also used them on a travel day to hold wet swimsuits because they’re waterproof and kept the suits from making everything else in our luggage soggy. There is a video on the manufacturer’s site that demonstrates how they work.

The second item they sent that we have found indispensable is the Digi Hauler Backpack. As its name implies, it holds a laptop easily in a hidden, padded compartment that sits directly next to your back. Since we usually travel with two computers, this second compartment holds my husband’s laptop and my son’s Kindle. The shoulder straps are very nicely padded, so it’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time. And the part of the pack that rests next to your back is also very well padded, so nothing pokes you. And, like the trench coat, it keeps my arms free to wrangle kids as we walk through an airport or train station. It has a waist belt for added stability, which is good since it’s usually stuffed to its gills. The zippers also lock, making it less desirable of a target for pickpocketing. It has handles and a shoulder strap if for some reason you want to carry it like a duffel and the backpack straps fold away, but I’ve never had use for that feature. The main compartment has huge storage capacity. In combination with the Compression Sacs, we’ve been able to fit a ridiculous amount of stuff into it. I love this bag.

With the ZÜCA Pro, the trench coat, Compression Sacs, and the Digi Hauler backpack, I can travel easily with two kids and not have to check a single bag. I wear my daughter in a Beco Carrier on my front, pull the ZÜCA with one hand, and have my other hand free to hold my son’s hand. If my husband is traveling with us, we’ve got an extra set of hands and no need for additional luggage. This setup is also great for taking public transportation once we’re at our destination. It’s so nice to be able to travel easily and in an organized manner with two young kids — finally!

Wallet organizing tips

When I was in university in Canada in the late 1980s, I had a hard time keeping my money organized. I had tried a number of different wallets and coin purses but I always seemed to have a heavy pile of $1 coins that I kept forgetting to use.

Everything changed when I visited Switzerland in 1990. Switzerland had 1, 2, and 5 Franc coins. The wallets in Switzerland were designed with a larger section for coins. In Canada, I only had access to purchasing American made wallets that were designed for American currency: $1 banknotes, not coins. Canada had introduced the $1 coin and had not redesigned wallets to adapt to more coins and fewer bills. I purchased a Swiss wallet and my organizational dilemma was solved!

Over the years, Unclutterer has discussed several ways to organize and trim down your wallet, but there are a few more things to take into consideration.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to pay in cash, and the currency in the country in which you live has more banknotes (bills) than coins, choose a wallet with a smaller coin pocket and larger bill pocket. Consider keeping coins in a separate coin purse.

If the currency has more coins than banknotes, a wallet with a large coin pocket might be beneficial. However, if you’re likely to pay for lower priced items in cash, then a separate coin pouch will allow you to quickly find the coins you need without opening your entire wallet.

In many places debit/credit card payments are very popular, so popular that some people never carry cash. This also means that we need more places in our wallets to carry credit and debit cards as well as cards for all of those loyalty programs. For those who prefer electronic payments, choose a wallet with enough card slots to suit your needs. You may wish to consider a second wallet for your loyalty cards.

Tips for International Travelers

Transfer the currency from your regular wallet to a separate coin pouch or even a zipper-seal bag and place currency of the new country in your wallet. This is ideal if you wish to carry many of the loyalty cards and ID cards with you when you’re doing business or sightseeing within the country you’re visiting. This system works well if the banknotes and coins of the two countries are similar.

An alternative is to have a different wallet for each country. Transfer only relevant ID and credit cards between the two wallets. This option is preferable if the currencies between the two countries have differently sized banknotes and coins that will not fit well in your “home” wallet. Also, you may not need many of your loyalty cards or perhaps even your driver’s licence in the country you are visiting so it may be better to keep those cards in your “home” wallet and lock it in your hotel room safe. By purchasing a wallet in country or from an online site of that country, you’ll be able to get a wallet suited for that country’s currency. Many people must keep records of all of their purchases so a wallet with a separate section for receipts is helpful.

Tip for Handling Coins and Banknotes

For greater efficiency and speed in checkout lines, pass the cashier the coins first then banknotes. It makes it much easier for cashiers to put the money in the cash register and it makes it easier for customers to put money in their wallets.

Preparing for house guests

For those of us who celebrate, the holidays mean that you’re likely to have house guests. Some will stay for a day, while others will be in it for the long haul. My wife and I play host to several far-flung relatives every year, many who stay for a week or more. It’s great to be around everybody, and a little planning makes it even better. The following are a few organized ideas you can employ to make the whole experience better for everyone.

Pre-visit

Before the gang shows up, there’s some preparation that needs to be done. I suggest you begin by delegating. There’s a lot to be done, and taking it all on by yourself is a bad idea. First, write down what needs to be done before everyone arrives. Next, divvy up who’s going to do what. Not only that, but set a start date and deadline for each task. That way, projects like “ensure that all bath towels are clean and available” and “wash all bed linens” not only have a due date, but a person in charge. Make this list public to everyone in your home so that accountability isn’t a mystery to anyone.

Next, prioritize. The lists you generate while working on the above will probably contain many items that must be done, as well as some that would just be nice to get done. From there, I suggest making three lists:

  • Priority A: Do or die, must be done.
  • Priority B: It would be nice if these things happened.
  • Priority C: Aspirational goals. Everyone will have a great time, even if these items are not completed.

After making this list, you’ll have a real good handle on what must be completed to pull off a successful and relatively stress-free hosting, and what’s nice but not crucial. Then, act accordingly.

During the visit

My family is not content with sitting around. They like to go, see, and do. This is a lot easier when the going, seeing, and doing have been defined ahead of time. Make a note of who’s “on point” for a given activity well before the guests arrive. Who will drive to caroling in town? Who’s in charge of dinner? Having those questions (and more) answered ahead of time will benefit everybody.

When my extended family goes on summer vacations together, we create sign-up sheets for determining who wants to do what. It might sound overly formal, but it helps the 13 of us stay on top of things without a doubt.

It’s also important to be flexible. The schedule isn’t the end-all and be-all of your time together. It’s merely a formalized suggestion. There will be times when plans change. Go with it. You’ll have a much better time than trying to stick, unyieldingly, to the itinerary.

Finally, don’t forget the little things or the regular routine. Who’s going to make breakfasts? Or take the dog out? Run to the dump or turn the laundry over? Answering these questions ahead of time is a good idea.

Odds and ends

Here are a few tricks that my wife and I have used at home with great success. First, we put a folder full of take-out menus in our guests’ bedrooms. That way, they know what’s around and can make their own plans if they like. Also, make a “Boredom Jar” like the one I described earlier this year. To make one, print many answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper. Next, glue them to popsicle sticks and stick them into a jar. Now, when the kids ask, “What can I do?” just point them to the jar.

Hopefully something here will work for you. Good luck and have a great holiday season.

Six unique travel journals for holiday travel

It’s December and that means the holiday travel season is fully upon us. It’s great to reunite with family and friends, see new places (or old ones) and enjoy some time away. That experience can be more organized when you plan and record your adventures with a portable, neatly organized journal.

I started keeping travel journals when I visited Paris for the first (and only) time about five years ago. Reading those old entries and looking at the tiny keepsakes brings back memories I might not have otherwise, and keeps all my memorabilia from the trip limited to one book. It could be done digitally, but as I’ve admitted before, I’m a big fan of physical journals. (Though, digital journaling fans can find helpful links toward the bottom of this post.)

Moleskine City Notebooks. This is the notebook that got me started with using a journal for travel. Moleskine produces a pocket-sized, hardcover notebook for several cities around the world (Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Seattle). Each features lots of blank pages for you to fill, but also includes subway maps, unit conversion charts, street maps, and an alphabetical street index. My favorite feature is the transparent, peel-and-stick sheets of plastic that can be placed over a map. Mark it up with points of interest, phone numbers or anything else that relates to the area in question. It’s very handy and the hard cover means it is up for rough-and-tumble travel.

The Journey Journal. Here’s a very clever idea from Etsy’s Cracked Designs. Inside you’ll find 13 pages to recored your experiences — perfect for short holiday visits -– plus a pocket for stashing souvenirs. But, what’s really cool is the cover. The notebook comes with six pins and a length of string that can be used to plot your journey on the notebook’s cover. Several maps are available.

Smythson’s Travel and Experiences notebook. As far as journals go, this one is definitely fancy. With the the gilded pages and a lambskin cover, you’ll want to keep the Smythson around for a long while. And why not? Some adventures deserve such fine preservation. It’s available in three colors and has a Moleskine-like ribbon bookmark.

The Scratch Map. This isn’t a journal per se, but I absolutely love it. When you make it back home from a trip, you can scratch the thin material away from the area you just visited. Three maps are available: The world, the USA, and Europe. Since it looks great hanging on a wall, it’s a relatively clutter-free way to remember your travels.

The Scratch Travel Journal. If you like the idea of the Scratch Map but really want a notebook, consider the Scratch Travel Journal. It combines scratch-able maps with blank diary pages, a packing checklist, and pockets for memorabilia storage. Plus, it looks great.

Mosey for iPhone. OK, I had to add one electronic journal. While I love Rego for keeping track of specific points of interest, I use Mosey for chronicling my journeys. It’s a really fun and great-looking app that doesn’t take up any physical space in your home. When you arrive at a given destination, you begin taking photos. Those shots are gathered into a single adventure, or “Mosey.” You can note locations, cauterize and tag for easy review later and even review adventures posted by other users if you choose. And no, you needn’t visit Timbuktu to get something out of it. A day with the family is a valid and worthwhile use case.

If you plan to travel for the holidays, consider planning and recording your journeys in an organized fashion. Have fun, and if you use something I haven’t listed here, let me know in the comments section. Be sure to check out our other posts on organized travel in our archives to find tips on packing, planning, and even returning to work afterward.

Organizing for travel: the packing list

How do you decide what to include on your packing list for any given trip? Obviously, the nature of the trip will determine some things, such as the need for hiking boots or formal wear. The following are some questions to consider as you develop the rest of your list:

  • For air travel: Do you want to have carry-on luggage only? Going carry-on only gets you out of the airport sooner, and it minimizes the risk of lost luggage. It also means you’re dragging more stuff through the airport and fighting for space in the overhead bins — and sometimes it’s simply not going to be practical. I make different trade-offs on different trips. You need to make this decision first when you’re flying.
  • For other travel: What space constraints do you have? If you’re not going by air, you’ll still want to consider how well your luggage will fit in the car, bus, train, or other vehicles you’ll be using. How much space will you have for your things?
  • How much technology do you want with you? Sometimes I’m going to need to do enough work that I’ve got to bring my laptop with me. On other vacations, I won’t take the laptop, but I will bring some smaller devices so I can do quick email checks, read e-books, etc. Other people prefer to go technology-free on a vacation.
  • How will you handle washing clothes? I’m usually a daily hand-wash kind of traveller, which lets me pack a limited amount of clothes. I’ve got a friend who’s a Laundromat user, so she packs more than I do. If you prefer not to do laundry at all — and your trip is short enough to allow that — you’ll need to pack to accommodate this decision.
  • How much wardrobe variety do you want? Sometimes we need a range of clothes to handle different types of events or different weather. But, sometimes how much we take is more a matter of this: How crazy will you go wearing the same few things every day? Will adding some accessories, which take less space than more clothes, give you enough wardrobe variety?
  • What would be hard to get at your destination? Some things are easy to pick up if you need them for any reason, but others are more difficult. The answers to that questions will change depending on your destination, and they’ll also vary from person to person. Are you OK with using hotel shampoo, or do you really want your own brand, which may not be available at your destination? One thing I always pack is a spare pair of prescription eyeglasses — ever since I broke a pair on a trip and didn’t have a spare pair with me.
  • Do you want to bring gifts? There are definitely times when I do want to pack some gifts: to give to people whose homes I’m staying in and/or to give to any special people I meet along the way. I do try to ensure that whatever gift I’m giving won’t create clutter for the person I’m giving the gift to; consumables often work well. Sometimes I can just purchase a gift like flowers or chocolate at my destination, but other times I really want to give something representative of home or something very special that I can’t just get on the run.
  • What worked well in the past? I keep a personal packing checklist so I don’t forget what things I want to take, based on prior travels. I’ll never pack everything on that list, since it covers a range of locations and weather conditions, but taking a look at the list ensures I won’t forget something important.
  • What do other people suggest? There are online packing lists that you might find useful: from Rick Steves, One Bag, Real Simple and more. These might give you ideas for your own list.

Charting summer vacation follow-up

Last June, my wife and I decided to save more money and more deeply invest in time we spend with the kids. The result was “Camp Caolo,” our summer-long stay-cation complete with chores, summer rules, goals, a wish list, and more. Now that the summer is over and the kids are about to return to school, I’m taking a look back on what worked, what didn’t, and what we will change next year.

  1. Weekly chores. I’d be lying if I said this went off without a hitch. The kids did their chores, most of the time. Often with protest. But hey, I’m not thrilled about doing my own chores.
  2. The summer rules. “Be nice to everyone or be alone in your room.” “Respect others, their sleep and their stuff.” “No fun until chores are done.” Again, these rules were hit and miss. Following through on number one a few times drove home the notion that we’d do just that: follow through on it. Rule number two was pretty easy to get compliance on, mostly because they slept like logs all summer. Finally, my wife and I did cave on rule number three a few times. Not habitually, but it did happen.
  3. The summer wish list. This was great fun. At the beginning of the summer, we all took sticky notes and wrote down a few things we’d like to do, like visit Boston, establish a family game night, camp out in the back yard, have a movie night, swim in the lake, take a fishing trip, go mini golfing, etc. Really everyone in the family loved moving a “to do” activity to the “We did it!” column. The kids got into figuring out when we might complete a certain activity, and we added a few on the fly. We didn’t get to everything, but now we have goals for long weekends this autumn.
  4. The boredom jar. This was another huge hit. My wife printed many wonderful answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper, glued them onto tongue depressors, and stuck them into a jar. When the kids asked that inevitable question, we pointed them to the jar. Eventually they’d wander over to it on their own. They ended up making several fun projects and spent lots of time in the yard just being kids. We’re going to keep the jar in play for as long as it’s effective. If you have kids, I recommend making one.

Finally, we bought journals for the kids to update as summer went by with notes and mementos from our activities. This fell by the wayside rather quickly. There was so much other stuff to do that we would forget about it for weeks at a time, and then the thought of getting “caught up” was enough for us to abandon the idea entirely.

Next year we’ll make a few changes. No journals and a little more leeway on chores. They are helpful kids and they do pitch in. So, if there’s an occasional pile-up of flip-flops on the kitchen floor – as there is as I write this – that’s not a big deal as long as it isn’t constant.

I want to say we’ll be less ambitious with proposed activities, but I’m not sure. We missed out on a few and really good ones and that’s disappointing, but not for lack of effort. Plus, we can carry them over to the school year, even though there’s a lot less time to get them done.

The days are getting cooler, the tourists are going home and the summer vacation chart is coming down off of the wall. Next stop is school, scouts, ballet, and so on. Summer 2013 was a good run. Here’s to a safe, fun, and productive autumn for all.

Running Errands

One of my least favourite tasks is running errands. In the winter, the heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures make driving difficult. In the summer, there are always delays and detours due to construction. Errands are time consuming, and if you’ve got lots of errands to run, you can feel like you’re on the go all the time.

To simplify the errand process, make a list before you start of all the places you need to visit: hardware store, dry cleaner, grocery store, etc. Check the websites for business hours. Pre-order items either using the website or calling the shop to make sure they have the items in stock. Sometimes checking the shop’s social media sites such as Facebook or FourSquare can provide you with valuable tips such as the closest car park to the shop.

It can be helpful to choose one day per week and do all of your errands. I used this method when I lived in Montréal. I did not schedule clients on Tuesday mornings and I did all my errands at once. When I moved to Ontario I had a corporate client and was in the office from Monday to Friday. I tried to batch my errands for Saturday mornings but the activities of our two busy teenagers often interfered with my errand-running routine. So, I changed the way I did things and started doing one errand per day on the way to or from work. I planned out 4-5 different routes taking me past various spots such as post office, dry cleaners, and grocery stores. I was only home from work a few minutes later or I had to leave for work slightly earlier, but the result was that I only had to leave the house once per day. I also tried to plan different routes to and from children’s routine activities so that we could quickly pop in and drop something off or pick something up.

It is even more frustrating trying to run errands in a new city when you don’t know where the shops are and you don’t understand the traffic flow. When I first arrived in Montréal, I used a satellite navigation system (GPS or Sat-Nav) to get around town. It kept telling me to make left turns, but in Montréal left turns are not permitted at most intersections. I gave up on the GPS and started using a paper map to plot routes that avoided left turns. This saved me quite a bit of time and made driving easier.

Now there are some great apps, programs, and websites to help you plan your routes to save time and save fuel.

Google Maps is an all-round great tool for plotting a route from Point A to Point B. You can adjust your route by clicking on the highlighted route and dragging it to a different street. Google Maps will tell you the distance traveled in miles or kilometers as well as the time it takes. Google’s Street View lets you see the place you’re going to visit. You’ll be able to familiarize yourself with the area before you even get there.

Driving Route Planner will let you choose multiple stops and optimize routes for you to choose from — shortest, fastest, or as entered. It will print driving directions and maps, email you the route, or save it as a GPX file to load into your own satellite navigation system. You can even add durations to stops so you know how long the total trip will take including stops.

When I was driving back and forth from university to my parent’s home, I had a CB radio in my car (I blame the Dukes of Hazzard). The CB was great because I could listen to other drivers and be able to avoid accidents and traffic jams. Needless to say, one of the most fun driving apps I’ve seen in a long time is Waze, a social networking, traffic and navigation app. Similar to Driving Route Planner, it can optimize your route for you and because it is interactive, taking input from fellow drivers, Waze will instantly update your route to avoid traffic jams. Waze will also learn your preferred routes to different places. Please dear readers, be VERY careful when using Waze because you should be 100 percent focused on driving. Check your local/state/provincial laws regarding handheld devices in vehicles, as the fines can be hefty. It’s best to have a passenger along to help you at least while you’re learning the route. Saving time and fuel is important but keeping the roads safe is even more important.

What to pack for an organized trip to Walt Disney World

The following is the second of three in a series on organizing a vacation to Walt Disney World. You may find some of the tips can be applied to other vacation destinations.

Different people vary in their personal preferences when it comes to packing for vacations. While some people prefer to pack lightly and do laundry midway through a trip, others would rather pack enough clothing to get them through the entire vacation without ever having to wear any garment more than once. Some people bring their own preferred brands of toiletries while others are perfectly content to use the shampoo, conditioner, and soap provided by hotels.

Rather than trying to provide an exhaustive checklist of everything a person might want to take along for general travel, I want to instead focus on a few specific recommendations for packing that are particular to visiting the Walt Disney World Resort. Irrespective of what your general approach to travel packing might entail, following these recommendations should help make your visit more enjoyable.

Clothing

Temperatures in Orlando can fluctuate dramatically throughout the day during the winter months. If you are planning your trip during that time of the year, you will definitely want to pack clothing that will allow you to dress in layers.

During the summer, it rains very frequently in Orlando. We have been on weeklong trips in which it has rained every day for at least some short period of time. We always carry individual disposable rain ponchos in our pockets. They are far less expensive than the rain gear sold inside the parks and are much easier to carry than an umbrella. They can usually be stuffed back in the plastic bags they come in and reused at least a few times each.

Purses and camera bags can be a hassle on rides. We prefer either hiking style lumbar packs (they twist easily around your torso) or clothing with enough pockets to securely carry smartphones, cameras, ponchos, sunscreen, wallets, sunglasses, and park passes.

If you would prefer to opt for clothing with plenty of pocket-space, consider garments from Scottevest. We’ve reviewed their products in the past and (as you can see from the photo below) we always pack them when we travel–particularly to Walt Disney World.

SCOTTEVEST in EPCOT

Erin and I have 18 pockets total in the three garments we are wearing in the above photo, from our most recent trip:

  • The Cabana Shirt (in Tomato Red) has 7 pockets.
  • The SeV Walking Shorts (in Burlap) have 8 pockets, several of which are very deep, and do an excellent job of keeping personal belongings secure on rides. They’re an excellent option if you don’t like the look of cargo shorts.
  • The Phoebe Dress (in Bold, which most normal people would just call Black) is knee length and has 3 pockets with zippers.

Everything we need is in our pockets and we still don’t look like we’re dressed for bass fishing. (Erin would like to add she has on a pair of biking shorts under the dress and strongly recommends them, especially on the rides.) The best thing about wearing clothing that can house all of your items in zippered pockets instead of carrying a backpack or other kind of bag with you is that you get to avoid the bag check security line and instead head straight to the park entrance.

Footwear

You will doing a considerable amount of walking every day during your visit to Walt Disney World, so you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes. If the weather forecast calls for any significant amount of rain, consider either wearing sandals or putting a spare pair of socks in your pocket before you leave the hotel for any of the parks. You don’t want to spend the rest of your day walking miles through the parks with wet socks, even after it has stopped raining.

Hat, Sunscreen, and Sunglasses

Even if the forecast calls for cloudy weather, make sure you have adequate sun protection when visiting the parks. You can buy sunscreen at the parks, but it’s far less expensive if you bring it along. We’ve found it is best to not pack white shirts and pants for these trips because many brands of sunscreen will stain white clothing.

Anti-Bacterial Gel

You don’t need to have a Howard Hughes-level of mysophobia to recognize that an amusement park full of children is like a giant petri dish. We all carry the small travel-sized containers of Purell. Wet wipes also come in handy. We also have been known to carry a few eye glass wipes since by mid-day we’ve touched our glasses with sunscreen laden fingers too many times to count.

Ear Plugs for Children

Disney puts on phenomenal fireworks shows just about every night. If your child is particularly sensitive to loud noises, then you’ll want to consider packing child-sized earplugs. They can be the difference between leaving the park for the day on a high note or in the midst of a meltdown. (Bonus tip: WDW is filled with automatically flushing toilets. If your preschooler isn’t a fan, a piece of painters tape over the sensor works wonders. Five or six pre-cut strips on an index card takes up very little space in your wallet and makes life a whole lot easier.)

Help your child fly solo with organized planning

Just last weekend, I put my daughter, 10, on an airplane in Boston which was bound for Philadelphia. Neither her mother nor I traveled with her. My heart went with her, however, as the butterflies in my stomach had forced it out of my chest.

What kept me from succumbing to my nerves entirely was thorough preparation. There wasn’t a lot to do, but attending to every detail ahead of time helped ensure a successful experience for my daughter and for me. Here’s how I prepped my 10-year-old to fly as an unaccompanied minor for the first time.

  1. Give the traveler a thorough briefing. This goes without saying, but don’t over look it. Talk about what will happen, yes, but don’t stop once you’re at the airport. Allow the child to be an active participant. Go over the boarding pass and explain the gate, departure time, boarding procedure, etc. Point out members of the crew and what their uniforms looks like. Greet the gate agents. Have her listen to announcements. In other words, help her be a traveler, not a child taking orders from mom or dad. This training can be done each time you fly with your children, even before they go on their own.
  2. Try not to freak out. I cannot overstate this enough. If you’re calm, there is a great chance your child will be calm, too.
  3. Pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi. If your child will be traveling with a connected device (iPod, phone, iPad, etc.) you can probably pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi online. Visit the airline’s website for information on this. It saves your child the hassle of trying to do it (my Grace would not have figured it out), and a flight attendant will gladly get her up and running. I wrote my account’s username and password on an index card that my daughter could show an attendant, who gladly got her connected.
  4. Decide well in advance if she will check baggage. Based on your child’s physical size, checked baggage may be beneficial. Walking to and from gates, even when accompanied by an airline representative or parent, can be a challenge with a lot of stuff. A simple, manageable backpack should be all your child has to worry about inside the terminals. The person meeting your child at the destination can help her retrieve her luggage.
  5. Provide DIY entertainment for the flight. Depending on the age of your traveler, the plane’s entertainment system might be difficult to operate. I prepared a small bag full of her favorite things, like those insufferable teeny-bopper magazines and a couple episodes of her favorite TV shows on the iPad mini.
  6. Snacks. Forget the overpriced, unhealthy airport food. I placed a few of her favorite, most portable choices into that same carry-on bag. Skip drinks, though.
  7. Book flights that depart early in the day. Morning flights statistically are less likely to be cancelled or delayed.
  8. Easily identify medical concerns. Pin a print-out of any medical/dietary concerns on your child’s shirt if the child is younger or have instructions in his/her carry-on bag. Point both out the gate agent.
  9. Give your kid a few bucks. Chances are she won’t need it, but I felt better giving Grace a five before leaving her.
  10. Grab some great apps. Grace has a few favorite games, but I also put FlightTrack Pro on her iPad. It lets her track her flight’s progress in real time and has one-tap, pre-written text messages like “I’ve taken off” and “I’ve arrived,” which make communication easy for everyone involved. Some airlines even have baggage tracking apps and/or websites so you can be sure your child’s bags are on the same flight.
  11. Confirm your airline’s policies for unaccompanied minors. My daughter flew on US Airways, which required me to call ahead of time and confirm specific information about the adult dropping her off as well as the adult picking her up. Also, confirm that the gate agent is aware of this information. Plan some extra time into your day as you will not be allowed to leave the gate area until Jr’s plane is physically in the air. If there’s a taxi delay on the runway, you’ll be delayed, too, even though you’re not the one flying.

Our careful preparation helped our daughter’s unaccompanied flights go off without a hitch and the planning was a big part of that. Lastly, let me tell you this: nothing feels better than that phone call from the destination that says, “Safe and sound.”

And for the record, I still had a little trouble with not freaking out.

Planning an organized Walt Disney World vacation

The following is the first of three in a series on organizing a vacation to Walt Disney World. You may find some of the tips can be applied to other vacation destinations. And, just to be clear, Disney didn’t pay for anything nor are they giving us anything for this series. This is just seasoned advice from one organized family that makes yearly trips to WDW.

It wasn’t until I was engaged that I learned I would be marrying into a Disney family. For people like me who were not raised in Disney families, I didn’t get the draw and hoopla. Why spend money going to visit the same place each year? Why would an adult have any desire to hang out at a really big theme park with a plush rodent? Aren’t I supposed to be upset with Disney for some political reason?

Then, our honeymoon plans were thwarted because of the September 11 tragedy, and my husband switched our destination to WDW at the last minute. After 10 days of swimming with dolphins in the Living Seas, playing golf on some amazing courses, spending a day at the spa, and eating my way through the countries in World Showcase, I started to see how Disney was more than large crowds and standing in lines. By my third visit, I realized I was part of a Disney family and I was okay with it. In fact, when we learned my son has a deadly food allergy, WDW became my favorite place to travel with him because of the incredible service he receives at mealtimes — a chef comes to your table or your place in line at every meal to talk to you about safe menu options. And, the chefs know exactly what is in their food and how items from outside their kitchens are processed.

I’ll admit, WDW isn’t for everyone. But, for those people who enjoy heading there or hope to head there one day, I can likely help you to plan an organized WDW vacation. Now that I’ve been going there for more than a decade, I’ve learned some valuable lessons beyond what you will find in travel guides. And, speaking of travel guides …

Buy a good Walt Disney World travel guide

There is no way in three posts I can give you all the advice you’ll want for your vacation. So, arm yourself with a book — a paperback book you can write in and throw in your luggage — and make sure it’s the most recent edition. Then, read this book from cover-to-cover. My favorite are The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids. If you won’t be traveling with kids, get the first one. If you’ll be traveling with kids, get the second. There is no need to get both.

Use these books to help you set a budget, choose a hotel (or two or three, seeing as if you want to stay on property you may not get your first choice), and pick what type of park ticket you want to purchase. Use the books as an introduction to the parks and try not to become overwhelmed. In a perfect world, you get this book and read it 10-12 months before you expect to travel.

Make your table dining and hotel reservations 180 days or more in advance

It didn’t used to be this way, but now if you want to get the dining and lodging you most desire, you’ll need to make these reservations six months in advance. Not all places are in such high demand that this is necessary, but a good chunk of them are. For instance, to eat at Cinderella’s Royal Table in Cinderella Castle at the time you want and on the day you want, it’s only going to happen (at least for us common, non-celebrity folks) if you call Disney Dining half a year ahead of time. If you want to stay in a resort on the Magic Kingdom monorail line, six months might be cutting it close. Restaurants like Le Cellier in Epcot’s Canada Pavilion rarely have tables available without reservations, even during times when crowds are smaller in the parks.

Personally, I recommend having just one table service reservation per day. There are numerous counter service locations throughout the parks that are decent and will save you money on food while you’re at WDW. And, if you’re not staying on property, the restaurants outside the parks are almost always less expensive. If you want a romantic dinner in a park or resort without kids everywhere, make a reservation for a time after 8:30 p.m. or drop a ridiculous amount of cash for Victoria and Alberts (it’s not really a kid place, though I’m sure some older ones have eaten there at some point).

Make your travel reservations

After setting your dining and lodging plans, take care of your travel accommodations. If you’re flying into Orlando and staying in a Disney resort, be sure to make a reservation with Disney’s Magical Express so you can get free transportation to your hotel. If you’re driving, learn now about parking and how much it will cost you and be sure to budget this amount. My rule is if we’re staying on property, there is no reason to rent a car. Taking a cab the few times we want to go off property is always less expensive than renting a car while we’re there.

Make a very detailed plan

Now is the time to let your organizing side take control. Make a spreadsheet! Draw a graph or table! Make a ridiculous plan that will likely scare normal humans.

The philosophy here is to do all the planning work before the vacation, and then just sit back and let the vacation happen. I don’t like to be stressed while on any vacation, and if you’re not prepared, it can be easy to be a ball of anxiety and frustration while at WDW. (Detailed planning also avoids a lot of kid tears and hangry adults.) And, except for dining reservation times, everything else on my schedule (linked below) is flexible.

The following is a sample spreadsheet of what a week-long vacation to WDW might look like for a family with preschoolers, parents, and grandparents in the same group. This assumes staying on property, and I’ve used the Wilderness Lodge as the example. You’ll notice the last two days are relatively free, and this is so we can return to parks we feel we didn’t get to experience as much as we would have liked. These open dates are great for playing golf or other non-traditional activities or the water parks if you don’t have young kids in your group:

Sample Week-long Walt Disney World Vacation Plan (in Excel)

Get to the parks early

When making your schedule, plan to be at the park entrance when the gates open for the day. Surprisingly, it makes a huge difference in what you are able to see and do in a single day. You can usually get four or five rides in that first hour if you get there early — your party also isn’t exhausted and it’s not evil hot yet. Our plan of action is for one member of our party to take our park passes and get Fast Passes for the most popular attraction we want to visit in that park (in Hollywood Studios, it is always Toy Story Mania) while everyone else lines up for another ride. Then, the Fast Pass ticket getter comes and joins us in the standby line. At Magic Kingdom this year, we rode Dumbo, Goofy’s Barnstormer (twice), Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Mad Hatter’s tea cups, and Tomorrowland Speedway in the first hour.

Also, be aware that park hours are different for WDW resort guests than for other patrons. (Parks open earlier and stay open later some days, in Disney-speak they are called “Extra Magic Hours.”) When you check into your resort, the front desk will give you a schedule of all the hours for the week you are visiting.

Take a break

During summer months, it is common for it to rain almost every afternoon in Orlando. The shower is brief, but you’ll still get wet if you’re in the parks. I don’t love being soggy, so about five years ago I suggested we go back to the hotel each day after lunch and then head back to a park in the evening. These breaks almost always include a short nap and on days it doesn’t rain they also include a dip in the pool. It’s surprising how much better of a mood everyone in your group is in when they have this break. If you’re only at WDW for the weekend, you probably won’t want to take a break. But, if you’re going for more than a few days, I cannot recommend the break enough.

Pre-pack for easier travel

I absolutely love getting away, be it a day trip or an overseas adventure. As an avid traveler, I’ve picked up a few tricks to eliminate the stress of getting out the door and onto the road in a timely manner. One of my favorites is to keep items in luggage that I never unpack. It’s always ready and saves me a lot of time. Plus, it keeps me from having to store my travel items in other locations when they’re not in use — the luggage is a great place to store my travel gear. The following are items I keep bagged, even when I’m at home.

Toiletries

Since I’m lazy, I’ve often avoided packing toiletries, figuring I’d buy a little toothpaste, a toothbrush and a mini deodorant at the hotel. I’ve also depended on the soaps and shampoos that they provide. But in the past few years, I’ve learned the hard way: that’s a bad idea. “What ever can go wrong, will go wrong,” Murphy says, and I’ve found myself scrambling for a drug store in the middle of who-knows-where one too many times.

Today, I keep a travel toiletries bag packed and ready at all times:

  1. A travel toothbrush. I love this one from Colgate because it folds in on itself, saving space and keeping the bristles away from everything else in the bag.
  2. Listerine. The 3.2 oz bottle is TSA approved, as it says on the label. So you can carry it on the plane.
  3. Deodorant. The TSA is pretty lenient here. Stick deodorant is not restricted to 3.4 ounces. However, gel and aerosol deodorants are.
  4. Travel toothpaste. Again, stick with the 3.2 or 3.4 ounce tubes. You may get these free when you visit your dentist for your annual checkup.
  5. Pain reliever. A small plastic container of 4–6 pills of Advil, Tylenol, or whatever is your pain reliever of choice, just in case.

Your needs my vary (contact lens solution, hair gel, etc.), but the practice still applies. Keep this bag packed, do not touch the contents and you’re good to go. Of course, you can extend this beyond toiletries.

A small bag for on the plane

If you’ll be flying or traveling by bus or train, it’s helpful to pre-pack a small bag of things you might want to keep under the seat in front of you. It might include extra chargers for your electronic devices (many bus and train seats have outlets), copies of prescriptions for active medicines, a little cash (you may want to buy on-board food), and your own empty water bottle.

I recommend buying an extra charger for your phone and keeping it stashed in this bag. Yes, it’s an additional cost but forgetting it at home or worse, at your destination, is a major hassle. Put it in your bag and forget about it.

Also consider bringing your own earphones if you want to watch TV without using airline freebies, a neck pillow and something light to throw over yourself in case it is chilly. Finally, don’t forget ear plugs, gum or an eye mask/sunglasses for sleeping. Again, these can be purchased and packed well ahead of time.

This and that

Finally, there are some additional items you might want to pack now, even if you won’t be going anywhere for months:

  1. An umbrella or disposable rain poncho
  2. A hat
  3. Charging cords and international charger converters
  4. Portable iPad/iPod/iPhone speakers
  5. Extra zip-lock bags for liquids or damp items
  6. Slippers

Of course, never forget the golden rule of packing: Anything you bring can be lost or stolen. Remember this when pre-packing your bags.

Uncluttered car safety tips

Over the weekend, I watched Ultimate Armored Car: The Presidential Beast and learned a lot about the security features on the President of the United States’ vehicle. It’s called “The Beast” for many reasons, including armored windows, a fuel tank surrounded by foam (so that it can’t explode), run-flat tires, along with a host of other features — all of which are designed to keep the occupants (up to seven) safe. This special car has been around since the 1930s and I suspect its specifications have improved over the years.

While most people don’t need a car like “The Beast,” you still need to be sure that your vehicle is operating optimally. There are also a few things you should do to ensure that no matter how you travel, you’ll get to your destination safely.

Keep your car properly maintained

If your car is well maintained, it will be safer to drive. You’ll need to make sure that all the parts of your car (like the engine, windows, lights, belts, tires, etc.) are in good working order. Keep with the maintenance schedule as noted in your vehicles’s manual. Not sure where to find your car’s manual? You should be able to find it on your vehicle’s manufacturer’s website if you don’t know where to locate the copy that came with your car. You can also visit Edmunds.com to get the maintenance schedule as well as the estimated costs for your car’s specific make and model (you’ll need to know this information along with the year, current mileage, and a few other details). Also, check for safety recalls at SaferCar.gov.

Plan ahead

Before leaving for your destination, figure where you need to go and how long it will take for you to get there. Google Maps is a good resource for getting directions and alternate routes in advance (even if you will ultimately use a GPS unit). This will help you get ready and arrive on time without feeling stressed and reduce your temptation to speed or drive aggressively.

You should also stock up on emergency supplies (mylar blanket, emergency kit, snacks, water, map) just in case things don’t go as planned.

Drive only when you are alert

This tip is well known but it’s still a good reminder. Drive only when you’re alert and keep in mind that some medications can affect your vision, decision making ability, and reaction time. If you’re feeling sleepy or are otherwise impaired, do not get behind the wheel. Give the keys to someone else (who is unimpaired) or make alternate plans. And, make a habit of putting your mobile phone out of reach so that you’re not tempted to text while driving. The same goes for makeup — put it on before you leave the house, not while you’re driving.

Keep your car uncluttered

What does having an uncluttered car have to do with car safety? Well, when you have lots of things in your car, they can become projectiles in the event of an accident. Use your trunk to store things you’re traveling with (like groceries, gym bag) and keep loose items inside the console and storage compartments. Something else to keep in mind — you can also become a projectile if you’re not buckled in, so you should wear your seat belt at all times.