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.

Organize your bag: Find things easily and reduce back pain

Have you looked inside your bag lately? I’ve been checking out What’s in your bag?, a regular feature on the website Verge.com, where people open up their bags to show everything they carry around with them. The bags of both men and women are profiled and it’s interesting to see the similarities of the things they normally keep with them (almost all bags contain a pen and a marker). Equally as interesting was that some people carry as many as 60 items on a regular basis, some of which are heavy (like cameras and laptops).

It’s likely that many people select bags not just for function (being able to carry essential items), but also for style (ability to complement most things you wear). But, if you look in the latest fashion magazines and catalogs, you’ll notice that bags seem to be getting bigger and bigger, probably so the people using them can carry more stuff. That may sound like a good thing, but overloading your bag can make it difficult for you to find what you’re looking for when you need it and, more importantly, can be a source of physical pain.

According to the American Chiropractic Association, weighty bags can have a significant impact on your body:

Carrying a bag with detectable weight–more than 10 percent of your body weight–can cause improper balance. When hiked over one shoulder, it interferes with the natural movement of the upper and lower body. The person carrying the bag will hike one shoulder to subconsciously guard against the weight, holding the other shoulder immobile. This results in the unnatural counterbalance movement of one shoulder and little control over the movements of the arms and legs. Even worse, the spine curves toward the shoulder.

If you tend to put a lot of things in your daily bag just in case you might need them, you may want to do things differently. While you might like the idea of being prepared for anything, in reality, you’re simply doing physical harm to yourself and cluttering up your time searching for stuff. As you decide which items you need to carry on a daily basis, consider these three simple things you can do to organize and reduce the weight of your bag:

Use a smaller bag

Using a smaller bag will encourage you to carry around your essential items only. If you have to use a larger one, consider getting one with wider straps, alternate carrying it on both shoulders, or get a bag on wheels. And, when you use a backpack, wear it (use both straps) instead of slinging it over one shoulder. If it helps to see cold, hard numbers, put your bag on a scale to see how much it weighs.

Clean and organize your bag often

It’s a good idea to organize your bag on a regular basis. Take out the non-essential items (like expired coupons, receipts, loose change) and keep only things you need to have with you every day (like keys, wallet, glasses). You’ll also want to vacuum the inside and clean the outside (especially if you place your bag on floors or public restroom counters). Pick a day of the week that you’ll regularly organize your bag to ensure it’s not overloaded with things you don’t need.

Consilidate and keep like items together

Both Erin and I are fond of bags with compartments because you can’t overstuff them and all of your things have a home. But, you don’t need a special bag to achieve the same results. You can create a bit more order in your current bag by downsizing (how many pens do you really need?) and consolidating similar items into pouches or zip top bags. This will keep things easy to find and help you to be more selective about the items you carry around with you.

Tech tools to help with your New Year’s resolutions

This past December, we shared some advice on Unclutterer about creating New Year’s resolutions. When deciding on a resolution(s) for the new year, keep three things in mind: acknowledge your feelings, have a plan, and take your time. As we mentioned, your plan don’t need to be rock solid by January 1.

Once you’ve decided on goals to work toward, you can focus on these five tips for success:

  1. Stay positive
  2. Lean on a support team
  3. Choose goals wisely
  4. Take on one goal at a time
  5. Focus on more ambitious goals over the long term

Today, I’ll share some software that will help you realize your annual goals, focusing on the most common resolutions, according to USA.gov:

  • Drink less alcohol
  • Eat healthy food
  • Get a better education
  • Get a better job
  • Get fit
  • Lose weight
  • Manage debt
  • Manage stress
  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle
  • Save money
  • Take a trip
  • Volunteer to help others

Many of these are similar, and I’ve combined those to create this master list:

  • Get healthy
  • Earn more money
  • Become a better citizen
  • Travel

Here are some examples of hardware and software to help you achieve each of those goals.

Get Healthy

Every January, millions of people vow to improve their health by either losing weight, adopting a healthier diet, or exercising regularly. It’s a great goal, as a heathy body and mind often means a longer, more enjoyable life. The health and fitness market is full of gadgets. Here are a few to get you started.

Bodyweight Training: You Are Your Own Gym for iPhone and iPad ($2.99). This app is remarkable in how comprehensive it is. It features over 200 videos demonstrating exercises that can all be performed with equipment you already have at home. There’s no need to buy an expensive gym membership. You’ll find guided exercise programs for all fitness levels, as well as timers to keep you on track. It’s great for when your traveling, too.

Nike+ Fuel Band ($149). The Nike+ line of fitness products are all connected to the Internet, for easy tracking of your performance and sharing with your friends. The Fuel Band is a bracelet with an accelerometer that tracks the number of steps you take and calories you burn each day. Set a goal and see how close you come. You can track and share your progress with friends via a browser or the optional iPhone app. There are even fun challenges to aim for, called “Missions,” presented as a sort of game.

MyFitnessPal (Free) MyFitnessPal offers a free calorie counter for the iPhone, iPad, Android smartphones, Blackberrys and Windows phone. It’s got a massive database of foods and drinks that let you track exactly how many calories you take in per day. You can also network with friends who are using the program, which helps to provide you with a community of support. Plus, it looks good.

Earn More Money

I can’t start this section without thinking of those Sally Struthers ads from the ’90s. “Do you want to make more money? Sure, we all do.” Here’s some software to help you stay on top of your finances.

iTunes U (Free). When I was young I was taught that the key to a good-paying, enjoyable job was education. Now, Apple lets me take a course on almost anything right from iTunes. iTunes U is a collection of educational resources put out by some of the nation’s top schools. You’ll find courses on a huge variety of subjects, from business to cooking to the arts and literature, law, math and science. Download any to your iPad and get learning.

Mint.com (Free) Mint is a fantastic finance and budget management suite of software. It’s available for the iPhone, iPad, Android tablets and Mac. It also works right in your browser, so Windows users can use it, too. Mint helps you track spending, follow a budget, set financial goals and more. Connect it to your bank and add any account you have, loans, retirement savings and more. Plus, it’s beautiful and generates nice-looking reports.

Become a Better Citizen

This often gets overlooked, but it’s great for your community and sense of self-satisfaction. Here are a couple of solutions to help you create and track all sorts of goals.

Everest for iPhone (Free) “Everyone’s got their Everest. Climb yours.” That’s a great slogan for a clever app. Everest lets you create goals and, more importantly, break them down into a series of small, achievable steps. Each goal, or “dream” as the app calls them, features an inspirational image. There are many to choose from, and you can even upload your own.

Lifetick (Free or $20 per year for the premium service) This app is different in that it starts by helping you identify your core values. Next, you create goals that are in line with each one. It’s an interesting way to approach goal setting. From there you create tasks for each goal and a timeline to keep track of all of them. Plus the web app is really beautiful.

Travel

Kayak Hands down my favorite travel app. It’s is as close to a portable travel agent as you’re going to get. It handles everything, from finding a flight to hotels, car rentals, attractions, things to do, and much more. Kayak polls several top travel sites and airlines for flights that match your criteria. The results can be filtered by airline, number of stops, airport, price and duration. You can also sort by cost, duration and departure time (leaving soonest). There’s an app for the iPhone, iPad, Android phones, Windows phone and Kindle Fire.

There you have it. I hope there’s something here to inspire you to an exciting, fulfilling 2013. Good luck!

How to plan for a stress-free return from your vacation

One way to beat stress is to regularly take time off from work, but returning to work after your vacation can often have the exact opposite effect — it can be a source of stress. How do you pick up where you left off so you can hit the ground running? With a bit of planning, you can actually come back ready to work and ease back into your typical routine without feeling discombobulated and anxious.

Add an extra day

If you’ve ever found yourself wishing for an additional day of vacation so you could recover from the days you spent away from work, it’s not a bad idea. Schedule your return home a day earlier so you have an extra day to the end of your vacation, which you can use to catch up on emails, get reacquainted with projects, and get settled in at home. Knowing what to expect before you head back to work the next day will give you a preview of what your week will be like as well as the opportunity to put some plans in place.

You might also want to think about adding an extra day before you leave to clean up at home (empty the garbage, wash the dishes, turn on the Roomba) or even get your clothing ready for the morning you’ll be returning to the office. That way, you won’t even need to think about these tasks when you get back.

Put your desk in order before you leave

Clearing your desk, putting away files, and leaving your office or cubicle in an organized state before you leave helps you in several ways. First, you won’t have to clean up when you get back so you can start working straight away (less time cleaning means more time being productive). And, not only will it be a welcome sight, but you will likely have a better chance of getting stuff done.

Schedule meetings several days after you get back

Before you leave, you’ll probably need to add meetings to your calendar. Be realistic about how much time you’ll have to prepare for those meetings, particularly if you need to share a report or take on the role of facilitator. Consider postponing meetings three to five days after returning (or longer, if possible).

Stay away from extra tasks

You’ll also want to refrain from participating in activities that were not planned prior to you leaving. Unless they are urgent and require your focus, unplanned tasks can increase your work load and be overwhelming. Instead, focus on your most important projects and then, as you get back in the swing of things, you can gradually add more to your plate.

Delegate some tasks

Before you leave, hand off a few or your to-dos to a colleague to manage while you’re away. That way, you don’t come back to a long laundry list of tasks and you can keep some of your projects moving along in your absence. At the very least, brief a colleague on where to find things in your office so he or she can locate them quickly while you’re gone and won’t have to call you while you’re spending time with family or sipping a fancy drink on a beach.

How to plan for a spontaneous trip

As I type this, I’m roughly 35 thousand feet in the air. I didn’t intend to be on a flight this this weekend, but my plans changed at the last minute. I checked my schedule and rearranged a few things, and here I am getting face time with some clouds.

Jetting off across country may sound exciting and fun. And, it is. But, for people like me who love to plan ahead, last minute trips usually are a source of stress. There’s an odd combination of excitement mixed with the feeling you get when you go through the triple loop of a rollercoaster. There’s something about an unplanned trip that can make your stomach do a few summersaults.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do in preparation of your next spontaneous adventure. Here’s what I did over the last two days to add this quick trip to my schedule without too many hassles.

Call in the troops

Most of us have people in our lives who can help us out in a pinch. Be sure to have those friends/family members on stand by and speed dial in situations such as this. They may be able to jump on the computer for you as you pack and help find a way to the airport/train station/bus terminal/car rental shop, research what kind of weather to expect at your destination, and help you find a way to get to/from the airport/train station/bus terminal at your destination. Really good friends and family members might also agree to watch your pets or house sit for you or make sure that your plants get a little sunshine and water while you’re away.

Let technology be your friend

Check in or get your tickets in advance online, if possible. It will save you few minutes and help things go much more smoothly on travel day. Luckily for me, I checked in for my flight a day in advance and pre-arranged to automatically check-in for my return flight on Sunday. The airline I flew then sent my electronic boarding passes to my email address. Advance check in and electronic boarding passes also mean quicker boarding times and no paper clutter when I get home. Of course, it does help if your smart phone (or tablet) is charged. I lucked out there, too. My plane has power outlets so I can charge up and have enough battery power to make calls once I land.

It also helps that I have a few tools that I normally use to get stuff done. Today’s post comes courtesy of my iPad, Bluetooth keyboard, and Evernote account. Both devices fit easily in my Butler bag and are lighter and easier to carry around than my laptop.

Have a few things ready to go

The nice thing about spontaneous trips is they are spontaneous. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a little advanced planning for when those moments arise. I know someone who always keeps a packed bag in the trunk of his car. His go-to items include a sweater and some T-shirts so that he’s ready no matter the weather. If a full bag isn’t your style, you can keep a packed toiletry bag in your luggage with a travel toothbrush, small tube of toothpaste, comb, 3 oz. shampoo bottle, and other supplies. You might even like to make packing lists for different types of trips — weekend at the beach, weekend in the mountains, trip to see mom, four-day conference — ahead of time and save these checklists in Evernote so you won’t forget anything the next time you travel.

Staying current with your laundry also helps to make sure you always have clean clothes when you need them. You won’t miss out on a trip because you have to do a load of wash. Owning an overnight, duffle, or weekend bag will also come in handy, and you can save time at the airport by having your name/address tag already filled out and attached to the bag. If you travel often, you may also benefit from an extra phone charger, so you don’t have to go searching for one before you leave.

Get productive

Chances are, by rearranging your usual plans to make room for the unexpected trip, you might be reducing how productive you would normally be. If that’s the case, use some down time, like when you’re on the plane or waiting for your connecting flight to get some work done. That might mean writing out your grocery or to-do list for when you return, reading that book you’ve been meaning to crack open (that book for me is The $100 Startup), or drafting a report.

Live in the moment

Sure, get stuff done (if you have time) so you don’t have an overflowing plate when you get back. But, don’t get so focused on working that you lose sight of having a bit of fun. Take advantage of the new opporutunity you have, whether that’s meeting new people or having new experiences. Your mind and body will feel less sressed and you’ll come back ready with lots of memories and stories to share.

What’s on your summer to do list? Organizing your car

The summer months are a good time to tackle many projects, including organizing your garage and closets. Today, we’re sharing tips on how to shape up your car. Though some may walk, ride a bike or scooter, or take public transportation to get about town, many people (raising my hand) travel by car. For some, it’s a second home or main “office.” When you spend a lot of time in your vehicle, keeping it organized is a necessity as you’ll need to not only feel comfortable, but also find what you need with relative ease.

To begin a car uncluttering and organizing project, take everything that doesn’t belong in your car out of the car (check under your seats), looking for things that are obviously trash (empty water bottles, food wrappers). Next, categorize the remaining items (chargers with chargers, first aid supplies with first aid supplies). Then …

Be selective about what you need to keep

Depending on your lifestyle, you could have a variety of things you need to regularly keep in your car. If you’re a mobile entrepreneur, you may need office supplies, brochures, or client forms. If you’re a parent, toys, books, or hand sanitizer may be more important things to keep in the car. For people who do a fair amount of long-distance driving, street maps, money for tolls, or audio books are the likely must-have items. Think through all the things you need to have with you on a regular basis so that you can …

Decide what will live inside your car and trunk

You will want to store some things inside your car (e.g. in the glove compartment, center console, pockets on the backs of each seat, side door pockets) and other items inside your trunk. Use frequency of use as a benchmark along with size and volume of specific items. For things you use often, store them inside your car and think of your trunk as archival or large item storage. And, if you live in an area where there are seasonal extremes, you may also want weather appropriate items (ice melt, gloves, sun shades).

Based on the size and features of your car (or truck or SUV or minivan), place things in the locations that make sense to you — like in a kitchen, store things where you use them. And, consider keeping a container inside your car to collect garbage. Here are suggestions on where to keep some things:

Glove compartment

  • Registration, insurance card, and emergency numbers
  • Car manuals
  • Collision kit
  • First aid kit
  • Cell phone charger (this can also be kept in the center console along with a tire gauge)

Door pockets

  • Maps
  • Container or resealable bag of coins (for tolls or parking)
  • Coupons and gift cards
  • Trash bags

Trunk

Choose your containers

Containers help you keep everything in its place and easily accessible. They also can help keep loose items from shifting and flying about if you have to stop suddenly or in the event of an accident.

Here are a few to consider:

  • Milk crate. A crate is great for keeping sports equipment, toys, and things that you need to do something with (packages to mail, things to return). Consider putting a milk crate (or laundry basket) in your trunk.
  • Trunk organizer. The compartments in a trunk organizer make it easy to keep similar items together and separate them from others. They can hold many things (like groceries and car care supplies) and have outer pockets for papers or maps.
  • Mobile office organizer. Use this mobile unit on the passenger seat to hold hanging file folders and to keep pens and note pads close by if you often work from your car. Some organizers have lids to keep items from slipping out and others forgo file storage and give you enough space for keeping CD’s, tissues, and other items.
  • Plastic envelope. Plastic envelopes are great for keeping coupons and receipts and can easily be stored in door pockets or behind-the-seat pockets. Or, put your registration and insurance card in an envelope in your glove compartment.

Create a maintenance routine

Once everything is arranged in the way that works for you, make a plan to keep your vehicle organized and road-trip ready. A simple way to stop the build up of trash is to empty your garbage container each time you fill up your tank. Because you refuel on a regular basis, combining these tasks will almost guarantee that your ride will be clutter free. What about all those supplies that you need to have all the time? To be sure you don’t run out, check your stash once a week (or once every two weeks) to make sure you have all you need and can restock if you don’t.

As with any maintenance routine, keep it simple. The more complex the steps, the more difficult it will be to maintain. Don’t wait until you get your car detailed to focus on keeping it clean and orderly. Do a little bit each week and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much easier it is to keep everything in its place.

Six ways to repurpose hotel toiletries

Travel-size shampoos, lotions, and soaps found in many hotel rooms are easy to accumulate when traveling and even easier to become clutter in your house when you return home. Since these items are consumable, can’t be passed on to a future guest once opened, and don’t have a price tag, it really is okay to take them. But, over time, an overflowing stash of these freebies can outgrow your space or take up room that other important “must-haves” should occupy.

Rather than throwing them in a bag in your closet (where you’ll probably never see them again) or putting them in the trash, you can repurpose them:

  1. Use them at home. Instead of saving them up, why not use them? Chances are you still have some half used bottles of shampoo, lotion, or even mouthwash, so start by using those partially consumed bottles first. You can also combine all the shampoos into larger containers (and then recycle the smaller bottles) or all your mouthwashes together, etc. You can also set them out in your guest bathroom in a “For Our Guests” box.
  2. Use them on your next trip. Extra bottles will come in handy on your next vacation that doesn’t involve staying in a hotel, so keep a bag in your suitcase (or backpack for camping trips) with the items you use the most. When packing, you can also put your shoes inside shower caps to help keep them for soiling your clothing.
  3. Use them at the gym. If you regularly shower at the gym after working out, travel-size toiletries are very useful and they don’t weigh down your bag.
  4. Keep them in your car. Are you a road warrior who spends lots of time in your car? Put some lotion, mouthwash, or sewing kit in your car’s glove compartment.
  5. Keep them in your purse or bag. Whether you walk, bike, or take public transporation to work, you’ll likely have a bag with you, the perfect spot for storing those items for easy access while on the job. You can also put some personal care items in your desk drawer at the office.
  6. Donate them. If you don’t have a need for the volume of items you have, donating them to a shelter is a good option. Clean the World accepts unopened and unused bars of soap and shampoo for distribution domestically and internationally to those in danger of hygiene-related illnesses. The Global Soap Project also collects and reprocesses soaps into new bars.

Of course, if you can avoid the temptation, you can avoid having to decide what to do with them by leaving them behind during your next hotel stay.

Curate your summer reading

Summer has kicked into high gear here in the northern hemisphere and this is when I like to retreat from the heat with a proverbial good book — but certainly not a “book” as my great-grandparents would have described one. Today, there are apps and devices that let you curate your summer reading from varied online resources and onto hand-held devices. With a little bit of time, an Internet connection and some free software, you can create your own digital reading experience and bring it to the beach, the hotel or even your favorite quiet corner of home.

Below, I’ve described several services that allow you to save or bookmark online articles for later reading. Once captured with the various apps, the articles are presented beautifully and legibly, as if you’re reading a digital book or magazine. Advertisements are stripped out, as are distracting sidebar ads and colors. You’re left with a great-looking and largely distraction-free reading experience. Best of all, these services are free and work on a variety of platforms, from iPads to Android devices to Nooks and Kindles.

Pocket

Online: getpocket.com
Cost: Free
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle Fire, various web browsers

The web service Read It Later was recently re-branded as Pocket. Once you’ve created a free account online, you can add a special bookmarklet to your web browser. Then, when you come across an article you’d like to read later, simply click the bookmarklet. A small window will appear confirming that the story has been saved to your Pocket account. You can further organize things with tags at that point. For example, “beach reading,” “research” or “kids.”

When you’re out with your mobile device, launch Pocket and you’ll find all of the articles you’ve saved. Some of Pocket’s useful features let you browse articles by tag, add a star to favorites and view videos and images you’ve saved in addition to articles.

Readability

Online: readability.com
Cost: Free
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle, Nook Tablet, various web browsers

Readability works much like Pocket. Create a free account, install the bookmarklet in your browser and send articles to your mobile device. There are important differences, though. For starters, Readability’s bookmarklet is much more robust. You can opt to read an article right then if you like, and Readability with present it in a beautiful, distraction-free layout. You can also send it to your Kindle or Nook Tablet with a click. Once you’ve synced your devices, you can access your reading list when offline.

Instapaper

Online: instapaper.com
Cost: Free with optional subscription plan
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle and Fire, Nook Color and Nook Tablet, various web browsers

Instapaper is among the first of these distraction-free reading services. Today it’s available on a huge number of devices and supported by a passionate developer and legions of fans. The iPhone and iPad version has some unique features, like tilt scrolling. This lets you scroll through a long article simply by tipping your device back and forth. There’s no need to swipe with a finger.

You’ll also find lots of layout customization options, like font size, several color schemes, spacing and brightness. After a minute or so of fiddling, you can get Instapaper’s articles to look just how you’d like.

Flipboard

Online: flipboard.com
Cost: Free
Compatibility: iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Android

Flipboard is unique in that you don’t add content to it. Instead, you tell Flipboard what to find for you. It will search the web for stories, photos and videos across several categories, including sports, technology, travel, photography, news, music, film and so much more. It will even pull content (articles your friends have linked to) from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, presenting all of it in a beautiful layout that’s reminiscent of a high-end design magazine. You can even add local news and your favorite RSS feeds. It’s such a great-looking app and has become my favorite way to browse Facebook.

There you have four services that will let you curate your summer reading, across several devices. Now start collecting, get reading, and enjoy these lovely, lazy days.

Organize your travel plans this summer

Yesterday (June 20th) was the first day of summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere. I, for one, am very happy about the start of summer. The days are longer and there are so many fun things to do, like taking road trips and long weekends at the beach. I’m really looking forward to sharing new experiences with my husband and 5-month-old. Planning ahead will be even more important for us since we are now traveling together as a trio.

To make sure your summer travel plans go off (mostly) without a hitch, follow these simple steps:

Figure out everyone’s schedules

Whether you’re taking a weekend trip with your girlfriends or heading off to a week-long family vacation to Epcot, it’s important to know when everyone’s available. This may sound obvious, but it is essential and perhaps the most challenging part of planning. Get this information as early as you can and find out if there’s any flexibility with dates (just in case one or two people are not available when everyone else is). Sites like WhenIsGood.net and Doodle.com can help easily coordinate this task. Once you know when everyone has time off, you can pick a date and then you will need to…

Decide where you’ll go

Once the vacation dates are selected, figure out where you’ll go. Will you be taking your annual trip to your favorite destination or will you go some place new? Are white, sandy beaches on your mind? Or, would you prefer something more active (like a hiking vacation)? Once everyone agrees on the location, do a little research to find out if there are any special events that you’d like to attend, and add them to your calendar.

Decide who will do what

Who will be responsible for making the flight and hotel reservations? Or, will everyone handle their own arrangements? If you’re taking a road trip, figure out if you’ll drive to your destination together or if everyone will drive their own car. If you’re carpooling, do you need to rent a larger vehicle and who will handle that? Who will bring the snacks and drinks?

Decide how to take care of trip expenses

When traveling with a group, it’s important to discuss how the trip will be paid for before you travel or make reservations. Will one person pay and then get reimbursed? When will he/she get reimbursed? Who will pay for gas and snacks? Do you want to reimburse exact amounts or do you think it will all “even out in the wash?”

Decide what to bring with you

The last time I took a road trip, I brought the world with me. Since I would be on the road for eight hours, I wanted to have everything I could possibly need at my fingertips. When you’re driving with a child and dog in the car for more than an hour, you really don’t want any surprises. As it turned out, I didn’t use half of what I packed. But, now I have a better idea of what I will use the most and this will help me when it’s time for our next adventure.

Here are some things that will be helpful to have on hand (depending on your specific circumstances):

  • Medications
  • First aid kit
  • GPS and/or paper map
  • Paper money and coins (for tolls, snacks)
  • Cell phone and charger
  • Sun screen or sun block
  • Books, magazines, or Kindle
  • Baby gear, if you have a baby
  • Children’s games and music, if you have children

No matter where you decide to go this summer, put a few plans in place first. Planning may not seem like fun, but thinking things through ahead of time will make the trip less stressful.