Find out if inoculations are needed. Visit www.cdc.gov/travel to look up the countries you will visit. Do this early because some require a series of shots and others take time to be effective.
Check your passport. Many countries will not let you in if your passport expires in six months or less. Don’t push the envelope; if you will have less than ten months left on your passport the day you leave the US, get a new one now.
Get some arm strength. Lifting and hiking around heavy baggage can leave you sore the next day. Do arm exercises that also strengthen your back and shoulders a little. Do it like the pros: exercise to fatigue every second or third day, not every day, to build muscle.
Start a packing list. Each trip is a little different. Start with the packing list in the last chapter, but add things as they occur to you. If you don’t add, “Pack a US flag to wave during the event,” no standard list here or anywhere is going to remind you ‘US flag.’ Ditto if you want to bring balloons to decorate the room for someone’s mid-trip birthday or bring specific jewelry. Don’t count on thinking of it again later. As obvious as it seems at the moment, write down additions to the travel list the moment they occur to you.
Group the list by where the item will be: suitcase, Liquids bag, Toiletries bag, Electronics, Purse, briefcase.
Get used to standing. If you’re a person with a sitting down job, put more standing into your day. Get your feet toughened to standing four hours and more per day.
Visit the dollar store. All your travel-size product and empty container needs may be fulfilled for under $10.
Test the ear plugs. Nothing is more dismaying than planning a good in-flight sleep only to find the ear plugs you purchased cause pain or distract you after only an hour or two. On a day when you don’t need an alarm clock, sleep the night with the earplugs.
Test run the changes. Stick with your usual deodorant, shaving cream, lotions, hair spray. If you’re switching to a brand with a travel size, buy it a few weeks ahead and use it for five days. If you still like it, fine. But if not, you have time to try something else.
Create a gift list. You may think you’ll just pick up a few things for family, friends, and helpers, but when you get home with three scarves and four refrigerator magnets that don’t seem appropriate for anyone, you’re sunk. Having a list and earmarking each purchase for a specific person prevents returning with a small pile of ‘gifts’ that aren’t used.
Arrange pet care for dogs or cats. If considering a kennel, a good plan is to let the pet visit the kennel ahead of time. On the first visit leave the pet for about an hour, then take them home. On the second visit, leave them for four to eight hours, perhaps overnight, then take them home. Having a third visit is even better. This way you communicate to your pet that this place is temporary and you’re coming back for them. Too many times people take their beloved pet to a kennel and return a week later to find their grief-stricken pet is never the same again. Never quite as happy or trusting.
Most cats can manage with a daily visit by a neighbor, but you are a better judge of whether your cat is like ‘most’ cats. Dogs require exercise and at least two longer visits per day. When leaving a dog or cat in the home, leave a radio on, tuned to a close station with no static or hums, to kill the overwhelming silence. Don’t make it loud; low enough to not interfere with conversation is fine because they have pretty good ears.
Cage animals like lizards, rodents, birds, fish and the like aren’t so broken up about a change in care; carrying them to stay with someone is better than piling up the food and water and leaving them alone if no one is willing to reliably visit them daily and do the work. The time of highest stress and risk is while taking them to the temporary home. Some vacation-related deaths I know about began with the stress or temperature change during the trip to or from the caretakers. Mind the temperature.
Buy tickets for your must-do attractions. The vast majority of travelers just get some travel books, collect a list of things to see and go. Then they end up standing in lines for hours. If there is something you really want to see, visit that website ahead of time. Make sure it’s open and see if you can buy tickets ahead of time and breeze in.
Get a tan. Sunburn is a fun-killer. Most people have a nice indoor job and suddenly change to spending four to nine hours a day outdoors. Sunscreen is sticky and messy and you can only bring 3.4 oz. of it per container, plus with all the strangeness and rush you’ll forget to put it on. A handful of sessions in a tanning booth or just tanning in the yard can increase your tolerance from thirty minutes to burn to three hours to burn. Combined with a sun hat or baseball cap, and sticking to areas under awnings, this is enough to skip packing sunscreen entirely. If you’re worried about health, one tan isn’t going to risk your life or make you wrinkle up permanently. We were designed for being in the sun.
Pick two or three credit cards. It’s safer if one is MC, one VISA, and one whatever you want. Keep the rest at home. Hunt down the four-digit pins for cash advances, and if you can’t find them, apply for new pins. ATM cards have spotty performance in other countries, and depending upon your bank, maybe in the US. Leave yourself a cash advance option. Having the pins could save your vacation.
Hold the mail. This can be done about four weeks ahead. Simply visit www.usps.com and click “Manage Your Mail” then look for “Hold Mail” in the pull-down menu. Fill out the form and you’re done. They improve their website regularly so it could look different.
Driving. If you plan to drive overseas, you may need an international driver’s permit in addition to your regular driver’s license; check the individual regulations for your destination country. Most people can obtain this permit for under $20 from an AAA office, the National Auto Club or by mail. Google International Driving Permit for more information. You’ll need your passport, current driver’s license and some proof of your flight. Ideally, apply two to four months in advance.
Suspend newspaper delivery. Like holding the mail, it takes several days to kick in, so three days’ notice may not be enough.
The Week Before
Cull through wallet contents. Remove every card that won’t be used, library card, business card, etc. Don’t lug around a single thing that has no chance of being used. Take your insurance cards along, though. You might even get away with not bringing a wallet at all, if you’re bringing a fanny pack or other item that will always go with you.
Pick the carry-on bag. When your main luggage is checked or in the overhead bins, you’ll need something for medicines, cell phone, gum, Kindle, neck pillow, etc. Consider a simple string bag. It can be used as a pillow. It seals up tight, so can be foot-nudged under the seat in front without losing any contents. If you decide to buy a sub sandwich or cinnamon roll to eat on the plane, it’s easily contained within during boarding. Women can stash their purse, bottle of water and sweater or fleece scarf in a string bag worn on their back, making it much easier to lift the main bag into the overhead bins. Walking down the aisle is a breeze without a purse catching on every third row, and then you just step into your seat, sit down leaning slightly forward, then unshoulder the bag while seated. When the flight is over, the bag can be balled up and stashed in purse or pocket. It makes a great daybag at the beach or while shopping or sight-seeing.
If you will have trouble lifting your bag overhead, it’s better to look around sheepishly—stronger people will nearly always offer to help—rather than kill thirty seconds trying to struggle it up yourself before getting help.
Inform the credit card companies. For cards you’re bringing along, go on-line or phone the issuer to fill out a travel notification. Tell them the end date is several days past the real end date. This reduces hassle if some businesses are slow in turning in the charges, or if delays or bump offers result in a longer stay.
Find these numbers. Write them in a card in your wallet plus program them into your phone.
Airline’s 800 Customer Service number
Hotel’s local front desk number (not the 800 number)
Credit card’s Traveler’s Assistance number
Car rental local number (or 800 if they don’t have one)
Cell phones of people you will be meeting or seeing
Tour guide company emergency line
Tip: type them in a Word doc, then print at 60% reduction or whatever to make a lot of data fit in a small space. Glue it to a business card and keep in your wallet.
Wear the shoes. Make sure the primary shoes are bearable for several days of use.
Tip: if you think a pair of shoes might be rough on the back of your heels or on one of the toes, put foam tape or an adhesive bandage in that spot right from the start. Don’t wait until the first layer of skin is gone.
Use the copier. For foreign travel, make two color copies of the photo page of your passport; leave one with someone at home that you can reach by phone, and put one in the carry-on bag (not the same bag as the passport!). For any trip, place the credit cards, ATM card, Driver’s License, and medical cards you’re bringing along on the copier and run two copies. Give one set to someone you can reach by phone, and the other in the carry-on bag. After making the copies, write the 800 number for each card adjacent to it, but not the three-digit code from the back. If you get robbed or lose your purse or wallet, make the cancellation calls promptly to mitigate the damage.
Test the alarm clock. Test whatever device you’re planning to use as an alarm clock at least twice before the trip. Does it really go off? Is it a noise that wakes you up? There will be strange and louder ambient noises than you’re used to, such as a loud fan blowing all night. A rendition of “Here Comes The Sun” might not do the trick. Lost opportunities due to oversleeping are a major cause of traveler regrets. A phone is not enough! People forget they flipped the sound off at the restaurant. A wake-up call from the hotel is even more unreliable! Trust me on this, even if that gamble worked out OK for you in the past. There is literally no downside to them for blowing you off. If you get very angry, as some of my friends have, they simply boot you out, so you’re homeless too. For primary alarm, a digital kitchen timer is the best thing around. Set it for seven and a half hours or what have you and start the countdown. Time zone mistakes will have no effect on it. The phone is the backup, not the primary alarm clock. Wake-up call, third.
Get small bills. Whether traveling in the US or International, hit the ground with a good supply of small bills or coins. Tipping shuttle drivers, hotel bellhops, and waitresses is expected and if the smallest you have is a $5 or €5, of course they’ll say they have no change. There are many cases where exact change is a timesaver. Tip: for international travel, the lowest-cost way to get foreign currency is the ATM once you land. Buy hairspray, bottled water or other small item at one of the shops and request small denominations for change.
Pay Bills. Try to pay something towards any bill that comes due in the next few weeks. Online you can schedule payments weeks ahead. Even if the due date is a few days after your return, between going through mail, unpacking and other tasks it could be forgotten.
Mark your bag. There are so many black bags and similar-looking duffels and backpacks. Customize yours with stickers, ribbons tied on or sewn-on patches on at least two sides to make it identifiable at a glance. Be creative. Even if you don’t check the bag, there’s hotel storage, shuttle bus racks, overhead compartments and plenty of other chances for mixups.
Get nails done. But only if you are a person who does that. Starting a vacation with fingers and toes at their best instead of sporting three-week old nail polish just feels better.
Computer backup. If bringing a computer, do a full backup onto a USB storage drive. Don’t forget to make a backup copy of fonts, internet favorites, wallpaper and small programs you’ve downloaded into your Programs folder.
Program to record TV shows. Your cable service usually has a website where you can look up the scheduled programming for the next week or two. If you miss a network show that you wanted to see, visit that network’s dot-com site, CBS, USA, A&E, NBC, ABC for example, the next week; it’s usually available by then for viewing.
For Women only. Pack your tampons or pads, even if your calculations indicate the trip lands between. The reality of female biology is that period timing pulls into synchronicity when living with other women. Traveling for hours on planes and sleeping in hotel beds has that effect. If you’ve been in menopause less than two years, pack supplies when going on a trip, because this may be your last time. Travel will alter your period timing.
Check basement, sheds, windows, etc. Do a walk-around before leaving even if you think all is fine. Just before a two-week trip I found a hose that had been shut off at the sprayer, not the faucet, and that spray unit was already leaking badly. From a window cracked open one inch to dirty dishes with food (attracting vermin) in the basement, a slow twenty minute check of places you haven’t touched for months could save you much misery later on.
Rain. Any cloth top, hoodie or jacket can be made into passable rainwear with the liberal application of spray water repellant. We’re not talking forever here, just two weeks tops. If you have a jacket you want to wear, don’t be so hasty in bringing a second raincoat, consider making this one more water repellant. As they say, test the spray in an inconspicuous place, let it fully dry, to see if it changes anything in a way you don’t like.
Spray the outside of cloth luggage, duffels and backpacks with waterproofing spray. This will help keep your belongings dry if you get caught in a downpour.