Sometimes a little OCD goes a long way – in this case, to Paris. We leave next week for our annual visit and I’m a veritable whirligig of ebullience.
This little girl from The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, has done a lot of traveling, and I’ve learned all the things that need to be done to prepare for a trip, mostly through first-hand mistakes.
Here’s your ultimate list of everything to do, to prepare for a worry-free vacation.
Schedule a Mail Hold with the Post Office
Nothing sends a message that nobody’s home more than a bunch of mail piled up at your door, plus you run the risk of mail theft. This is easy and can be done well in advance. Just go to https://holdmail.usps.com/holdmail/, enter your name and address, and select the dates to start and end.
File your travel plans with bank and credit cards
Having your credit cards shut down on vacation is a real buzzkill. I primarily use American Express to rack up travel miles, and you don’t have to enter travel plans in advance with AmEx, but it is after all American Express and isn’t quite as widely accepted in Europe as Visa or Mastercard.
Go on your bank or credit card website and enter the dates and countries you’ll be visiting so there’s no lack of fun due to lack of funds.
Arrange for a dog / house sitter
You know the old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t leave the dogs home alone. If you’re going to need one, plan in advance so your favorite sitters aren’t booked up and you wind up leaving Fido with a puppy axe murderer.
According to an annual airfare study conducted by Cheap Air, the best time to book flights currently is roughly 70 days (10 weeks) in advance. Book sooner rather than later for the best fares, even if you’re booking with miles.
Is it better to rent a hotel or an apartment? That all depends on the length of your stay, how familiar you are with the location, and your ability to speak the language.
If you’re traveling to a non-English speaking country, a hotel can make life easy. The front desk people are usually multi-lingual and can assist you with things like directions, restaurant recommendations, and booking taxis.
A word of advice on booking hotels – I typically will shop on the discount hotel websites to hone in on prospective hotels and locations, but once I find one I’m interested in, I go to the official hotel website to book it. In many cases, the prices are the same or even lower (many have online specials), and if you should need to cancel, it is much, much simpler (be sure to check the cancellation policy). If there’s a substantial difference, book with the discount site.
If you book an apartment, you’re pretty much on your own or relying on the kindness of strangers to figure things out, but it’s an opportunity to be adventurous, buy some groceries and pretend you live there. Which is kind of great.
Also, consider booking a car service in advance for your return to the airport. A lot of International flights leave in the very wee hours of the morning when taxis are not roaming the streets and there’s no one there to help you, and your international calling plan may not work as well as you expected.
On our last trip to Paris, we stayed in an apartment. I had thought everything out so carefully – except how to get back to the airport; we’d always stayed in hotels so it was never a problem. And yes, at the last minute, I had problems with my phone service. Fortunately I found a nice company who was willing to take a reservation via email, and miraculously the driver appeared at 4:30 the next morning.
This time, my return to the airport is all set – a private car through Super Shuttle. I even got a AAA discount, and received credit toward my Delta Skymiles account – for next time. Score.
Print tickets, vouchers and boarding passes
I’m all for going green, but again, you can’t always count on phone service or internet in a foreign country. If there’s an option to print your tour vouchers, tickets and boarding passes in advance, do it.
Some of the small puddle-hopper airlines you may use between countries in Europe actually require that you check in and physically print your boarding pass in advance, so read the small print and avoid desperately looking for a kiosk with a printer just before boarding time (yep, did that in Ireland).
If there’s an option for an e-ticket or voucher, get that too, and take a screenshot of it on your phone. That way if all else fails, you still have a way to retrieve it.
From my experience, it’s best to half-plan a vacation, meaning that about half the time is scheduled with things you know for sure you want to do, and half the time is open for side trips, unexpected adventures, and naps (it is a vacation, you know).
Booking a tour or two is a great way to get more out of your trip. Most guides are really knowledgeable (I’ve never had a bad one), will show you things you wouldn’t know to look for, and will give you information that you wouldn’t have gotten on your own.
Map your routes
If you have specific tours or destinations in mind for your trip, unless you plan to take a cab everywhere, map them out at home and jot down details and directions.
By doing a little research at home on the Google you can find out, for example, that coming into London from Heathrow on the tube, there is one and only one station along the Piccadilly line (Hammersmith) where you can switch to the District line without having to schlep your luggage up and down stairs. Little jewels of wisdom that your GPS can’t compete with.
Just Google “how do I get from (here) to (there)”. I’ve pulled up some great blogs and tips that have saved me time and helped me discover some pretty interesting side trips.
Plan your wardrobe
On my first trip overseas, I was accompanied by nine (yes, nine) bags. This was long before the days of paying for extra checked bags and I was much younger so didn’t mind hauling it around too much, but still, it was kind of ridiculous. Especially when loading it all up in the water taxi to Venice.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve whittled it down to one 26” bag. I list out in advance the outfit combinations (including shoes) I want to wear, and look for opportunities to multi-task pieces. I try everything on at home to make sure it looks in real life the way it looks in my head. Then I make a “master list” of the items to pack. You’ll thank me later – trust me.
And throw in a collapsible duffle to bring home newly acquired treasures.
Make a trip to the drugstore (or raid the medicine cabinet)
I’ve had trips tarnished by lack of: Band-Aids (blisters from walking all over Tokyo in heels), Advil (massive altitude headache skiing in Italy), Campho-phenique (fever blister the size of a B-52 crater from a day-long jeep tour in the sun in Spain), and Claritin (attack of hives on a flight back from Budapest). The lesson – go prepared with anything you need for your own common aggravations.
And don’t forget the odd little things you’re used to having on hand at home, while you’re at it – like self-tanner and root touch-up.
Buy a good power adapter / converter
It’s best to buy a good one in advance – you’ll overpay if you buy at the airport. If you’re going to be using it for anything other than charging electronics (such as bringing your own hairdryer or flat iron), you’ll need one that – otherwise you’ll fry your appliances on the first day (yep, done that too).
Lastly, clean out the fridge and take out the garbage
You don’t want to be welcomed home by a stinky head of cauliflower in the vegetable bin or a fish wrapper you threw away the night before you left. Clean out all the left-overs and vegetables (or anything the dog-sitter won’t want) and carry out the trash while you’re waiting for your airport ride.
And after you’ve done all this, you’ll definitely need a vacation.
Here’s a checklist re-cap, for your next trip:
- Schedule a Mail Hold with the Post Office
- File your travel plans with credit cards
- Arrange for a dog / house sitter
- Book flights
- Reserve accommodations
- Book tours
- Print tickets, vouchers and boarding passes
- Map your routes
- Plan your wardrobe
- Make a trip to the drugstore (or raid the medicine cabinet)
- Buy (pack) a good power adapter/converter
- Clean out the fridge and take out the garbage
And most importantly, enjoy!