Why I’ve Given up on Carry-On Only Packing

For the first 16 years of my life, traveling with my family, I thought checking luggage was something you always had to do.  We always checked bags.


The Two Checked Bags, Two Carry-On’s (Plus one purse) Nightmare Trip

Well, when I was 16, I went on my first international trip without my family, with a group from high school.  Although I probably didn’t quite appreciate it at the time, my mom was a nervous wreck.  She ended up having me pack things for every possible contingency.  Full size bottles of shampoo and soap, a full box of band-aids, a portable alarm clock (hey, this was 1997, we didn’t have cell phones to use as alarms!), a box of cold medicine, a full bottle of Tylenol, a full tube of Neosporin … You get the idea.  I just kind of mindlessly followed her lead.

I should also point out that my family has a quirk, which I never realized was a quirk until I like went to college.  (Isn’t it kinda crazy how you never question things as unusual until you start to observe other people).  So, my family, for instance, only wears a pair of jeans once and then washes them.  Really, any clothing.  We’d only wear it once, then it had to be washed.  Jeans, skirts, even things like bath towels.**   We ALWAYS did laundry.  And now I understand why I was never allowed to buy anything that was dry-clean only!  Because my mom probably thought I’d have to take it to the dry cleaners any time I wore it!

Anyway, I’m describing this quirk to also illustrate the sheer QUANTITY of clothes I had to pack for a two week trip to Europe.  Pretty much wearing every item only once (because the HORROR of wearing something more than once without washing it.  Imagine!)  But for things I didn’t have enough of, of course I also had to pack Woolite in order to wash things in the sink.

My goodness, this all sounds so ridiculous as I type it.  But I just never even thought there was anything unusual about it!

Needless to say, I had to check my bag.  Two bags, in fact.  Plus the bag I carried on.  Ah, 1997.  Prior to outrageous checked bag fees and overweight charges.

I feel pretty stupid for saying this, because it seems so obvious, but perhaps I can blame it on being 16 and naive, but I hadn’t really thought ahead to the fact that I was going to be responsible for lugging these bags among eight cities in two countries.  From hotels to buses back to hotels to a ferry from Italy to Greece to another bus, to another hotel, to a tiny cruise ship cabin, to the bus and to the Athens airport.

I was one MISERABLE 16 year old girl.  Especially because several of the hotels didn’t even have elevators.  I was literally ready to throw away the two suitcases I had checked after the second city of the trip.

Why I've Given up on Carry-On Only Packing


The Carry-On Only Obsession Begins

Two years later, when I was 18, I was going on another international trip right after I graduated high school.  To my mother’s dismay, I was only bringing carry-on bags.  “But the band-aids! But the full bottles of shampoo!  What would I do if I ran of of shampoo!?” “What do you mean you’re going to wear pants more than once! You’ll be walking around in filth!  I was firm in my decision.  No checked bags.  Granted, my carry on’s were pretty loaded up, but everything fit! And in 1999, airlines didn’t seem to have such strict weight restrictions for carry-on luggage.

And guess what?  That habit stuck for years.  There were very few trips in the next 15 years that I had to check suitcases. 1) When I lived abroad for nearly a year, 2) When I spent three weeks in Oregon for a work trip, and 3) For cruises, because I’d usually require a multitude of different clothes for cruises (dressy for dinner, casual for touring, swimsuits, etc.).

But then something unfortunate started happening.  Between 2003 and 2007, my checked bags (the grand total of about five times I had to check them), started getting lost.  Er, “mishandled” in airline speak.  On my Cairo>Paris>Philadelphia>Pittsburgh trip, I had to pick up my checked bags in Philly for customs and then recheck them to Pittsburgh.  Lo and behold, my bags were somehow lost on that 35 minute flight.  Then in 2007, we went on our Caribbean cruise, so I checked a bag.  On our way back from Puerto Rico, my checked bag was, once again, mishandled.  Then again in 2007, I was traveling to Portland, Oregon for three weeks for work, so I checked a bag.  I was on a nonstop from Washington Dulles to Portland.  When I arrived in Portland and my bag never arrived at baggage claim, I went to the luggage office.  They said, “Oh, your bag is still in Denver.”  I’m like, “Umm, But I was never in Denver!”  I have no idea how my bag made it to Denver.  But, United delivered it to my hotel the next day.

There were a few more lost bag incidents.  Although I always got them back unscathed, it was enough for the paranoia to set in.  What if one gets REALLY lost next time?  I know this sounds vain, but I think it would really put a damper on my trip!

So, I became obsessed.  OBSESSED with carry-on only packing.  Didn’t matter how long the trip. I was shoving everything in a carry on come hell or high water!


Oh International Airlines and their Stingy Carry-On Limits

But then came some issues.

1) Non U.S.-based airlines are EXTREMELY strict with the weight limits of carry on bags.  It’s usually limited to just about 14 pounds, and you can only carry on that one bag (plus a small item). Keep in mind that an average carry-on with wheels weighs around 7 pounds just empty.  So that really only leaves you able to pack about 7 pounds worth of items in your bag.  That is NOT a lot.  A few articles of clothing, a pair of shoes, and some toiletries always put me over the limit.  And that didn’t include things like camera equipment, electronics, etc.

Although I was able to FIT everything in a carry on bag, the suitcase itself usually weighed closer to 30 pounds.  So this was always a problem when traveling overseas and trying to limit myself to carry ons only.

So, I started tinkering with non-wheeled based bags so that I wouldn’t be “wasting” any weight on the bag itself.  Granted, this was only necessary or trips abroad, but I was still so worried about losing my luggage again!

That brings me to the next issue.

2) I hate (HATE!) carrying a bag on my shoulder.  There is nothing quite like lugging a bag on your shoulder to the ends of the earth (er, ends of the airport terminal) and starting your trip with a sore shoulder.  I tried a few times.  I was miserable each and every time.

Finally, I reached the “F*CK IT!” phase.  I am back to being okay with checking bags for long trips.  I came to this realization just prior to our trip to Russia.

Remember what I said earlier about not having any trouble FITTING items into a carry on bag?  That it was usually just the weight that was a concern?  Well, packing heavy winter clothes for a two week trip became next to impossible.  Even though we were traveling Turkish Airlines Business Class, which had a higher checked baggage weight allowance than coach, there was still no way for me to both fit and come in under the weight allowance for my bags to Russia.


Tired of the Obsession.  Back to Checking Bags!

I finally had a realization.  I am spending WAY TOO MUCH TIME worrying about packing things so precisely in order to fit in a carry on bag and have everything weigh exactly what it needs to weight.  Seriously, it was a ridiculous amount of time.  Watching YouTube videos on the most efficient way to fold shirts, researching compression bags, researching ultra-light baggage.  It was terrible, and a complete waste of time.

Plus, it’s not like I’m just packing clothes and toiletries when I travel.  Photography is a big hobby of mine, so I always travel with my SLR plus two or three additional lenses when I go on a big trip.  That’s one carry-on bag alone right there!  Add in chargers for cameras, chargers for laptops (which yes, we need to pack so that we can backup our photos during a trip), and chargers for all our other electronics, that takes up a lot of weight and volume right there too.

So, I finally determined that it wasn’t worth my time anymore to shove every item in a carry on.  Sure, I still get nervous checking bags.  I’ve had them lost enough times for that to still weigh heavily on my mind!  But now, in the weeks leading up to each trip, I’m not researching (again, because I do it before EVERY big trip) better bags, lighter bags, ways to fold my clothes to save space.  Now, I just check a bag.  Easy peasy.  And I’m definitely not packing like my 1997 trip to Italy and Greece!  It’s just one checked bag.  And I should point out, that if I’m going away on a quick trip, I can still fit everything in carry-on bags just fine.

However, when I do check bags, I am still very cognizant about how my bags, a  mix of checked and carry on, “fit together” so that I can easily maneuver them and carry them.  For instance, no more than one wheeled bag per person, since it is next to impossible to wheel two suitcases at once.  Plus maybe a duffel bag that can rest on the luggage handle.


What about you?  Can you fit everything in carry-on bags?  Does it still come in under the weight restrictions for a lot of international airlines?

**I broke this laundry habit in like record time when I started college. I only had room for like three bath towels, and I found that I was having to do a load of laundry every three days at like four bucks a load (wash and dry).  Within like two weeks, I was using my towels for multiple days!

Planning a Daily Vacation Travel Itinerary (Flexible and Customizable)

A few weeks ago, I gave an overview of how I plan a vacation and I promised a subsequent series of the more nitty gritty details of my vacation planning process.  Today’s post covers how I plan a day-to-day itinerary of a trip.

Creating a Daily Travel Itinerary for your Vacation. Use your vacation time efficiently! Plan a customizable (and flexible) daily itinerary for your trip!

Now, there’s a few assumptions going into this post:

  1. This is an “active” vacation.  And by that I mean it’s not like an all-inclusive resort where you’re staying on the beach all day every day.  (Certainly not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s just that you don’t quite need to plan out a detailed itinerary for that type of trip).
  2. You actually like to plan things in advance and don’t just like to trip upon things serendipitously.  I figure, vacation time is precious.  I don’t like sitting in the hotel in the morning trying to figure out what to do for the day! Or walking around just hoping to trip upon something amazing.
  3. With #2 out of the way, as always, you need to build in some flexibility.  I don’t think there’s EVER been a trip I’ve been on that I’ve gotten to see everything I plan to see.  There’s always something that changes.  Like really enjoying one site and spending more time there than originally planned (like what happened when we were at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City and decided to spend more time there and go to the World Trade Center Memorial the next night, instead of rushing to finish at the Intrepid.)  Or sometimes you’re just plain old tired and need to relax instead of hitting up yet another vacation attraction. I’m not one to “force” myself to see sites when I’m exhausted, because then I just don’t find it enjoyable.

By the way, in this post, I use the word “attractions” to mean anything to see at a particular destination.  Museums, botanical gardens, National Parks, State Parks, scenic vistas, etc.  You get the idea.  

Figuring out what to do and see in a vacation destination

So, I mentioned a few of these things in the previous post, but let’s cover it (in a condensed format) again.  After I pick a vacation destination(s), here’s how I figure out what to do in each destination:

  1. Consult TripAdvisor.  Of course, I almost always check out the top sites.  But remember to navigate several pages in to see some of the lesser-known sites.
  2. Consult Yelp.  Since Yelp reviews tend to be written by locals and not tourists (although not always!) it’s a good way to find other sites and attractions that might be lesser known.
  3. Consult travel books.  That’s right, I admit it.  I still like travel books!  Like Lonely Planet, Frommer’s Fodors, etc.  I almost always buy at least one travel book for any big trip.  They’re great for giving consolidated details about sites and attractions in your destination.  Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the abundance of online tips and reviews, that it’s nice to just read one consolidated and concise overview.
  4. Ask for recommendations from friends and family that may have already visited.  I can’t think of a single trip where I haven’t posted online to Facebook or Twitter saying, “Planning a trip to XYZ.  Any tips or recommendations?”  Boom, automatic recommendations from people you trust.  People always love talking about their previous travels.

For each site or attraction I find on each of the above-mentioned resources that sounds interesting like I might want to visit, I bookmark it, usually using Evernote (of course, any sort of bookmarking will work).  I usually bookmark like the website for the actual attraction instead of the TripAdvisor or Yelp page, but sometimes for something that doesn’t have its own website, I’ll bookmark the TripAdvisor or Yelp review page instead.

So now I have an entire list (err, bookmarks) of potential sites to visit.  Next up, it’s time to create maps to figure out the most efficient way of planning the daily itinerary.


Creating a custom Google Map to efficiently plan a daily itinerary

I’ll develop a map for EACH trip city.  For instance, if we’re visiting four major cities, like our 2008 Road Trip to Atlanta, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Memphis, I’ll create a Google Map for each city.  If it’s a trip to just one city, I’ll just have one map.

For this example, we’ll just go on the assumption that we’re visiting one city.

So, I create a custom Google Map with the city name.  You can do this by going to maps.google.com and entering your cursor into the search box.  A link with “My Maps” will appear.  After you click on “My Maps,” there will be an option to “Make a Map.”  If you have existing custom maps, they’ll also appear here.

Creating a Custom Google Map to Plan a Daily Travel Itinerary


My google maps and creating a custom google map for a daily travel itinerary

I visit the website of each attraction I bookmarked for that city, and copy the address of the attraction.  Then I copy it into Google Maps and add details to the description as necessary.  Sometimes, when you search for an attraction on Google, it will automatically appear in Google Maps.  Then you can just click on the map on the search results screen and save it to your custom map.  However, sometimes I like to double check that the address is correct by verifying it on the  attraction’s actual website.  Sometimes things move or close, so I always like to verify!  In the description or notes, for the map pin, I usually will also try to add the hours of operation so that I can keep that in mind when developing the daily itinerary.

After a while, I end up with a map that looks like this one did (for our 2013 New York City trip.


New York Travel Map for planning a daily itinerary


As you can see in the above map, there are some definite “clusters” of attractions, with a few outliers.  So I know that I’ll probably plan each day around a particular location cluster.  Sometimes the maps aren’t as clear cut, and things are really spread apart.  No big deal.  Then it usually doesn’t matter how we plan our visits to the different attractions.

If I know the hotel where we’re staying already, I’ll also add that to the map.  Sometimes I know what hotel we’re staying at before this process, sometimes not. It depends if I’m jonesing to try a particular hotel (like the Park Hyatt Moscow or Andaz 5th Avenue).  If I don’t have an immediate hotel preference, I might try to find a  hotel around a cluster of some of the attractions we might want to visit.

So, let’s take the New York trip as an example.  Using the custom Google Map, I identified what attractions to see on which day of our trip. Usually there’s not much preference in the order of which attractions we see on which days.  Obviously if there’s something that’s really top on our list to see, then we’ll probably include that on our first day.  Or, if one attraction in a particular cluster is closed on a certain day of the week, that might affect that day we visit those attractions.


Adding dining options to the itinerary

Next up is identifying restaurants.  I didn’t always identify restaurants as part of the trip planning process.  I was always like, “Oh, we’ll find something nearby.”  And, who knows where we’ll be exactly when we get hungry!  I would say like 80% of the time, that method was a catastrophe.  We’d end up starving at some point, desperate to eat, frantically trying to check apps like Urbanspoon or Yelp on our phones to see what was good nearby, only to find that there was a two hour wait or that the restaurant prices were way more than we wanted to spend.  So, although the whole concept of kind of finding some random hole-in-the-wall restaurant that ended up being fantastic, just by chance, never really happened.  In fact, I can’t think of one restaurant that we’ve ever found randomly that was terribly memorable.  So now, we try to build in dining options into our itinerary.  However, keep in mind, flexibility is key!  If you do find some random hole-in-the-wall restaurant, by all means, go for it!

I follow much of the same process.  I use Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, and recommendations from friends and family for restaurants.  Although I love to cook, we’re not “foodies” by any stretch of the imagination, and the thought of spending more than $25 on an entree (really more than $15) makes me cringe.  So, right off the bat we can usually limit our searches to less expensive restaurants.

 Then, I create a different “layer” on my Google Map.  I then enter in the addresses for each yummy-sounding restaurant option on the Google Map.   I always identify WAY more restaurants than we could ever eat at during our trip, mostly because we want options in case if some of them don’t work out when we’re nearby.  Like if we identified an Italian restaurant but are more in the mood for Mexican.  We like to have options!

Here is the map I created for our Las Vegas trip back in February.  The attractions have green pins, and the restaurants have red pins (the airport and our hotel have blue pins).

Sample travel map for Las Vegas vacation

Voila.  Pre-identified, well-rated, reasonably priced dining options all populated on our map.  And wouldn’t you know it, many of them fall within our “clusters” of attractions. So when we’re out and about, we know exactly what’s nearby, well-rated, and reasonably priced when we start to get hungry!


Organizing the Final Itinerary

To do a final organization of all the information I’ve collected and to create a detailed daily itinerary for each day of the trip, I enter the information into TripIt.  I’ll cover TripIt more in a future post, but just to summarize it here, it is a FANTASTIC app that organizes all your travel plans.  You can just forward your plane, rental car, hotel, etc. reservation emails, and it automatically enters it into a wonderfully organized format.

But, using the daily itinerary options I developed based on my Google Map, I enter the desired attractions and restaurants for each day into TripIt.  This is a manual process (although you can forward some dining reservations, like from OpenTable, to TripIt.  Or even some tour reservations, although I’ve found that it varies wildly whether TripIt recognizes the format for random tour reservations.


Although entering this information makes it seem like we’re tying ourselves to a very rigid itinerary, it’s really not.  Remember what I said at the beginning of this post.  There is almost RARELY a travel day that our itinerary goes precisely as planned.  So, when you see that I have it entered into TripIt that we’ll arrive at Springs Preserve at 11:30AM following our breakfast that started at 10:00AM, it’s really not that precise.  Entering the times serves primarily one purpose: to ensure that we haven’t ridiculously over scheduled our day.  So if we have five attractions on the daily itinerary and as I’m entering them in, at particular times I realize that we’d have just like 90 minutes to spend at each, that’s a helpful signal that we’ve scheduled too much for that day and it’s time to rearrange things or cut back.

I also enter in one restaurant each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on our TripIt itinerary.  Based on reviews and locations nearest the “cluster,” I’ll identify where to eat for each meal, and enter the restaurant details into TripIt for a particular time.  Again, this is not as rigid as it seems.  Sometimes we’ll eat all three meals, sometimes we won’t.  And if we get hungry for something extra, or if the restaurant we planned to eat at is outrageously crowded, we can refer to our Google Map for other restaurants we previously identified.


Whew, that was a long post!  It seriously took me longer to write and describe WHAT I do than it actually execute these plans!   What do you do to plan daily itineraries for your trips?

Planning a Travel Itinerary (An Organizational Guide)

I have quite a few friends and family members that always seem to be astounded at the destinations that Ken and I pick for vacation. It’s not that these friends don’t go on vacation. It’s just that they usually choose one or two of the same destinations for their vacation every year.  In this area it’s typically Myrtle Beach, the Outer Banks, or Ocean City. Rinse and repeat.  (Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Outer Banks!  But every year? No thanks. Too expensive!)

They start questioning the details. “Wow, did you get a travel agent to set that up?”  Nope.  “Did you like book a tour package?” Nope (although sometimes we might book day tours when we’re in a particular destination).

“So how did you figure out all those details?”


At this point I usually launch into a rambling explanation that begins with, “Well, it depends if it’s a road trip from our home, a road trip from a destination we have to fly to first, a cruise, or just a normal mixed-transportation trip that includes flights, rental cars, and an occasional taxi or train or subway.”  Then some additional ramblings about spreadsheets, Google Maps, ExpertFlyer, ITA Matrix, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and TripIt.

By this point, friends’ and family members’ faces have long glazed over and they’re just nodding their heads in polite confirmation that they’re still somewhat paying attention.

In case you’re interested (and in an attempt to organize my explanation for how I actually DO plan a vacation) I’ve listed out some steps below.


1.  Consult my “Trips to Take” spreadsheet.  I’ve maintained this spreadsheet for many years. It plans out the bigger trips we plan to take each year (usually one on the spring and one in the fall).  It also serves as a master list of current bucket list trips and festivals (using that term loosely – more like “events”) that I want to see eventually.  Don’t be fooled by how precise this looks.  I don’t think there has ever been a single year that the spreadsheet hasn’t changed, so it’s always in flux. But it does help me stay organized about what some of my bigger bucket list trips are. Funny how things always get added and moved around though!  I change the font to green when we actually complete a trip.

Trips to Take Organization Spreadsheet

Itinerary Planning

2. Figure out the destinations for a trip. Sometimes I take all these steps, sometimes just one step. It varies depending on the trip! So, let’s say a destination on my “Trips to Take” spreadsheet was the “Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.”

2a.  Google Maps Destinations.  I think this section is best described using a few examples.  For years, I had been wanting to go to the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. It takes place every October, and I was just so amazed by the photographs of the event.  Back in early 2012, I decided that that was the year to go to the Fiesta. But then I started thinking more about it.  DC to Albuquerque was a nearly five hour flight.  Did I really want to take a five hour flight just to go to Albuquerque for a few days? Nah! Let’s fly to Albuquerque then make a road trip out of it!

I looked at things to do in New Mexico, mostly using TripAdvisor. Then I’d open Google Maps and zoom in on Albuquerque.  Then I’d slowly zoom out, taking a look at some interesting-sounding things on the map.  Oh, Santa Fe? I’ve heard that’s beautiful. Oh, Sedona, I’ve heard that’s fantastic too.  Oh, what is this interesting-sounding place up here?  Glen Canyon Recreation Area? Never heard of that, but it sounds promising. Let me Google it.  Oh wow, and the Grand Canyon isn’t far from that. Let’s check up north. Oh, that Glen Canyon area isn’t very far from Monument Valley, I’ve always wanted to go there!

You get the idea. There’s nothing really precise about it. I just kind of search, Google, and develop ideas.  I tend to use Evernote as a personal bookmarking site. I create an Evernote notebook for “Hot Air Balloon and Southwest Trip” and start bookmarking all the locations I’m searching for. At this point, nothing is “off the table.” If it sounds interesting, I bookmark it.

Google Maps Albuquerque

2b.  Consult organized travel websites for other potential stops.  In addition to the Google Maps technique, I also use TripAdvisor quite extensively. For instance, back in 2010, we booked a one week Mediterranean cruise departing from Barcelona. I had never been to Spain, so I definitely wanted to spend some time in Spain before our cruise departed. After all, why make such a long flight for just a week-long trip?  So, I looked up Spain on TripAdvisor, and browsed the cities and what they had to offer.

2c.  Borrow heavily from expert-developed itineraries. Friends, the internet is a beautiful thing. And so are travel books. Seriously.  Sometimes travel books (like real, paper books you can hold in your hand), are very valuable travel tools. I like them because it eliminates a lot of the distractions you might come across when researching destinations online.  Distractions like random one-off reviews of “I hate this place!” Anyway, one of the things I like most about travel books (like Lonely Planet or Fodor’s), is that they always provide sample itineraries, and usually those itineraries are based on how much time you can spend in each destination. A lot of them even post sample itineraries online. For instance, Frommer’s posts sample itineraries for one week in Spain, two weeks in Spain, and Spain for families.  I’ve never once followed these itineraries precisely, but it usually helps give me a good idea of what the highlights are!

3.  Research sites and attractions in each city / locale identified.  Once I have identified potential cities to visit on my trip (using Google Maps, TripAdvisor, and sample itineraries), I check TripAdvisor and Yelp for “Things to Do” (i.e., attractions) in each city.  Sometimes I eliminate cities if the attractions don’t seem to warrant a special stop. Although that is RARELY a problem! I usually find too much stuff to do in cities. But one example I could think of was Key Largo.  Originally I was thinking about spending three or four nights in Key Largo. However, after I found out that many of the attractions in Key Largo are scuba-diving related (which neither one of us do), we decided to minimize our time in Key Largo to just two nights.  Still plenty of time to enjoy ourselves on the beach!

4.  Pare down the itinerary.  Alas, we don’t have unlimited vacation time from work. Nor do we have unlimited funds (although free travel perks from miles-and-points hacking sure do help!). So, we usually have to cut back on the sites and cities identified in my previous steps.  So, using the Southwest USA road trip example from earlier, we opted not to visit Santa Fe and Sedona (although we definitely hope to visit those places in the future!). Using our Spain trip example, we eliminated Valencia from our trip, and we had originally tried to fit in some stops in Portugal as well, but we decided to save that for a future trip.

Whew, this post is getting long!

In the next post, I’ll talk about how we pick hotels, how we optimize and plan our daily itineraries, and given some examples of how we organize all our trip information.


Pre-Departure Countdown Checklist for Travel | Being an Organized Traveler!

I tend to be pretty compulsive about making lists and I get a stupid amount of satisfaction from checking things off said lists!

I have an folder on my computer that is FILLED with travel-related lists. Packing lists for road trips. Packing lists for international trips. Packing lists for visiting family (when I just mooch off their shampoo).  Pre-departure household checklists.  Pre-departure countdown lists.

You get the idea.

So today, I’m sharing with you my pre-departure countdown checklist. I developed this list a few years ago when I started to hate that harried feeling I’d get when trying to prepare for a trip. For example, I’d go to pack my camera, but realize that most of my memory cards were full, so I’d have to take the time to upload all the pictures to my computer. Or want to make sure I have plenty of things to keep me occupied on a long plane ride, and I’d get distracted trying to find podcasts or magazines to download to my iPad, or books for my Kindle.

Oh, and let’s not forget trying to clean up the house. Because who wants to come home to a messy house? Or was my mother the only one who seemed to pass that on to me?

This list was designed to be the solution! It spreads out the pre-departure tasks over several days so that nothing seems overwhelming. And let me tell you, it helps SO much when I follow this list.  I followed it precisely for our Florida Keys trip back in November, but I only kinda followed it for our trip to Las Vegas in February (thanks to a family emergency the days before our trip), and it made a HUGE difference. I was much more relaxed when it was time to leave for our Keys trip compared to the Vegas trip!

Pre Departure Countdown Checklist for Travel | When to charge your electronics, put your mail on hold, etc before traveling so you don't have to do it all at once!


Keep in mind that this is different from my pre-departure household checklist, which includes things like taking out trash, double checking doors are locked, etc. I’ll share that in a separate post!

Not every task is necessary for each trip. For instance, I don’t put mail on hold if we’re only gone for a long weekend. But I keep it on the list, and if it’s not applicable, I just scratch it off!


Weekend Prior to Trip

  • Take backup hard drives to safe deposit box (in case of disaster at our home while on vacation, our most important data will be protected). You can read more about how we backup our data here.
  • Withdraw cash from bank if necessary
  • Make any necessary tweaks to home security system

T-5 Days

  • Download maps to handheld GPS if necessary (Ken carries a handheld GPS on a trip to geotag our photos. We download all the sites we plan to visit onto the handheld GPS!)
  • Schedule mail hold (only necessary for longer trips. It’s easy to do this right on USPS.com)
  • Alert credit card companies about travel
  • Clear old photos from iPhone if necessary and backup to computer
  • Verify that at least one neighbor still has a key and ask them what days they can check on house
  • Put newspaper delivery on hold

T-4 Days

  • Refill all travel size bottles if necessary (shampoo, soap, makeup, etc)
  • Clear external hard drives taking on travel (we make many redundant backups of our photos when we travel.  See more about that in this post!)
  • Download any desired books to Kindle
  • Purchase any desired movies for laptop or iPad
  • Clear all old video camera files and photo files from memory cards
  • Download audio books if desired
  • Download podcasts if desired
  • Download magazines for iPad if desired

T-3 Days

  • Print out all documentation for trip and put in folder (hotel reservations, car rental reservations, etc.)
  • Make sure all laundry is done for trip
  • Plug in all electronics (camera, Kindle, etc) for charging
  • Get a Manicure and Pedicure if desired
  • Clean out purse and coat pockets

T-2 Days

  • Pack for trip

T-1 Day

  • Straighten up/light house cleaning
  • Relax!

Travel Day!

  • Finish packing things that you couldn’t pack until day-of-travel (like makeup items that you don’t have travel size versions for – eyeshadow, blush, etc., and laptop computer)


I’ve been using this list for a long time, and I’ve found that it’s exhaustive for our purposes. Obviously each family is different, so think about some of the things that might apply to your family. Like do you have to drop off your dog at a pet hotel the day before you leave? Or maybe give the neighbor instructions for checking in on your house?

What tasks do you always find yourself having to do before leaving on a vacation? How do you keep things organized and streamlined?

What I Like to Buy when I’m on Vacation

Although Christmas day has already come and gone, our tree is still up, and I love looking at the ornaments on it!.

Trimming our tree every year is always a stroll down memory lane. I buy Christmas ornaments nearly everywhere we travel, near and far. So as we unpack the ornaments from storage every year, it’s nice to reminisce about the travels associated with each ornament. Like these ornaments from our trip to the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque and the Grand Canyon in 2012.

Christmas tree sentimental ornaments

I thought I’d share with you what else we buy when we go on vacation. But first, a story.


A Lesson Learned in Buying Local

When I first started traveling extensively in my teenage years, my mom always reminded me of the importance of bringing back small gifts for family. I’d bring back things like magnets or ornaments, and when I’d present one to my grandfather, he promptly look at the back of the gift, exclaim, “BLECH!! Made in China! It’s not even from [Whatever place I had just traveled to!]” And then essentially he’d throw it back at me. He’d end up keeping the gift, but you could tell he was still disappointed. (I should point out that my grandfather really was an incredibly kind man, but he was never quite able to shake off the whole “Made in China” thing.)

I used to be kind of sad at my grandfather’s reaction. So on subsequent travels, when I would be traveling and looking for something to buy him, I would hunt high and low for things that were locally made. I guess this habit kind of stuck, because now that is always what I’m on the lookout for.

And while it is still quite difficult to find a Christmas ornament that is actually locally made (and I still buy them anyway, even if they do say “Made in China” or wherever else), I do try to find other locally-made things that I can buy.

Here are a few of my favorite souvenirs that I like to buy.


Favorite Souvenirs

Tapestries. Ah yes, one of my favorites. It all started in India more than 13 years ago. I was at some small mall-type place, and I walked into a store and found this tapestry that I just absolutely loved. It was WAY out of my price range as a broke college student (I think it was around $35-$45 or so, which sounded like a fortune to pay for a “souvenir.”) But a friend of mine convinced me that it was too beautiful to pass up. It currently hangs on the wall above our bed.

Tapestry from India

Shortly after my trip to India, I was in South Africa. I fell in love with another tapestry that I found at a local craft market in Cape Town. This tapestry is enormous, and I still don’t have a good place for it in the house, but one day, I’ll figure something out!

Hand painted tapestry from South Africa

Anyway, my love of tapestries have followed me throughout my travels, including one like this bedouin tentmaker fabric from Egypt. (You may have seen it hanging on the wall in the pictures on our DIY Console Table post)

Bedouin Tentmaker Fabric from Egypt Tapestry from the tentmaker market in Cairo, Egypt


“Fake” Flowers. This all started with a wooden Tulip my sister bought for me when she went to the Netherlands about 10 years ago. I put it in a skinny vase and always had it out on display, even in my early scummy apartments.

Flower souvenir display

Back in 2009, when I went to New Orleans on a work trip (shortly after my first trip ever to New Orleans), I was walking through the French Quarter and found a small shop that sold art from local artists. I fell in love with a glass flower (the largest flower in the photograph), and I guess I just started my collection from there! A little more than a year later, Ken and I were in Florence (as part of a Mediterranean cruise), and I spied a lovely little orange glass flower at a small artist’s shop. And then last year, when we visited Legoland in Florida, I bought a red Lego flower! My “fake” flower collection is only up to four, and they’re not exactly something I actively seek out when I’m traveling, but if I do happen to see one, it’s hard to resist the purchase!

Flower souvenir display


Christmas Ornaments.  Ah yes, how this whole post started. My mom and dad were avid Christmas ornament collectors. They always picked them up when traveling. When I would travel without my parents, I’d always buy one for them as a gift. But strangely enough, the thought of buying ornaments for myself didn’t occur to me until I was in my late 20’s. I think it had something to do with the fact that I never had room for a Christmas tree! Well, I finally realized that that would not always be the case, and eventually I’d have my own Christmas tree to put up and decorate. So, I started buying Christmas ornaments. And for years, they just sat in a bin, unused. But now for the past few years, we’ve had an actual Christmas tree to put ornaments on, and I love it. I love looking at all our ornaments, like the Coca Cola one from our trip to World of Coca Cola in Atlanta, GA, and a cruise in 2010, a trip to Ontario in 2009, and our camping trip just last year.

Coca cola christmas ornament souvenir Christmas ornaments


Any miscellaneous item for display.  Stuffed camels from Egypt. Nesting dolls from Russia. Butterfly from the Butterfly Conservatory in Key West. Tiny Waterford Crystal clock. What do all these things have in common? They’re things that I have purchased on my travels and now sit on our living room display shelves.

Displaying travel memorabilia at home Waterford Crystal Clock

Although the Waterford Crystal clock was something my grandmother had me buy for her when I went to Ireland in 1999. She then gave it back to me a few years ago because she said her house is “too cluttered.” This coming from one of the most fastidious persons I know!)
If it looks cute or unique, it’s a difficult temptation to resist buying it!

What do you buy when you go on vacation?