Reviewing my Travel Checklists for our Trip to Russia

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Since we leave for Russia in mid-February, I’m in full-on planning mode. It gets pretty insane, but I thrive on this sort of stuff. One of the things that always helps are my packing lists.

Packing lists are a funny thing. I seriously come from one of the most disorganized families I know. Growing up, things were always done in such a harried and stressed out manner, I felt like I channeled that anxiety from a very young age into being organized. We traveled ALL THE TIME in my family (the benefit of having a dad that works in the airline industry … you fly for free!) but we never had any sort of pre-travel routine, and it never failed that we always forgot something important.

The first time I remember making a packing list was one of the first times I was going on a very big trip without my family. I was 16 and was going on a trip to Italy and Greece planned through my high school. Several months before my trip, I opened up a Microsoft Word document on my Windows 3.1 computer and typing a list of all the stuff I wanted to bring with me. I eventually categorized the category, and then even italicized, underlined, or bolded the item to indicate what suitcase the item would go in. Italicized was for my larger carry on, bold was for my smaller carry on, etc.) I printed out the list when I started packing, carefully checking off the items as they went in my bags.

Fundamentally, my checklist routine hasn’t changed much. Sure, there are items I don’t have to worry about packing any more. Cell phones have eliminated the need to pack a small travel alarm clock or a calculator to figure out what something costs in a foreign currency. I don’t need camera film or blank video camera tapes, and since I’ve made the switch back to glasses, I don’t need any of my contact supplies anymore.

Having these checklists are so helpful. I can leave for the airport knowing I have everything I need. I can quickly pack if there’s an emergency I have to travel for. And it’s just one less thing to worry about when your mind is probably swimming with details about your vacation.

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So, I keep referring to “checklists” in the plural. So nope, I don’t keep just one, I keep multiple.

The Master Travel Checklist

The master checklist contains just that. Pretty much anything and everything I could ever, and have ever, packed for a trip. This includes items that would be needed for all types of trips, including international trips, like passports and foreign currency. It includes things I would need whether I’m driving, like my Garmin car GPS, or whether I’m flying, like my boarding pass. And things like my bathing suit or sandals, which I certainly would not need in 20 degree weather. So the point of the master checklist is to use that to build my trip-specific checklist. For instance, if I’m going on a week-long vacation to somewhere very warm in the United States, I’ll create a separate list from my master list. I’ll remove any items related for foreign-only travel, remove things like laundry detergent since I can easily pack for a week-long trip without having to do laundry, etc.

The trip-specific Checklist

I’ve used my master checklist to create a trip-specific checklist for Russia. There are a few things that I’ve added to this list that had never been on my master list (but are now!), like hand and feet warmers, mittens, and thermal base layers. We’re also packing a cowbell and an American flag to cheer on the U.S. athletes competing in the Olympics! So those things are on my list too!

My hometown travel checklist

I maintain a special checklist for when I travel to my hometown to visit my family, which is at least six or seven times a year. I maintain a special list because I don’t need to pack things like shampoo or toothpaste, since I’ll just use what my dad or sister have, and I also keep a few clothing items there, like pajamas, so I don’t need to pack those either. It’s really helpful to just have that one checklist to refer to for trips to my hometown. I’ll usually just quickly browse my “Master” checklist before departing to make sure nothing jogs my memory that I need (like packing a sports bra would have been really helpful when I was going to one of those huge trampoline centers for a birthday party. But since a sports bra was only on my master list, and not on my hometown list, I would’ve never thought to pack it before I left.)

I keep track of all our checklists in our home Wiki. I used to keep them primarily in Google Docs, but the wiki has been great for travel checklist purposes!

I don’t want to draw this out too long, so I’ll set up a second post that includes all the items on the lists, how I organize the lists (hint: have you ever considered organizing a packing list by the order in which you can pack things? It works great! Much better than by category or type).

My Experience Applying for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check

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Last week, I flew to my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA for a few days because my dad was having knee replacement surgery.

Most of the time when I return from a trip visiting family, and friends and coworkers ask how my trip was, I usually respond with some sort of “Proud Aunt” story concerning my niece and nephew.

This time though, while there were plenty of cute baby niece and smart second grader nephew stories, my response immediately went something like this, “Oh-em-gee, TSA Pre Check is a life-alteringly amazing program that has made air travel enjoyable again.”

I am not overselling this.  I transited security WITHOUT ANY BINS.  Do you know how many bins I usually need for the conveyer belt?  At least two.  Sometimes three if I packed both my work and personal laptops.

This time?  Zero bins.  Shoes stayed on my feet.  Liquids stayed packed in my carry on.  Laptop remained in my bag.  And I wore my coat.  I would’ve timed how long it took for me to transit security, but I didn’t think to do that in advance.  But I literally think I transited security in less than 20 seconds.

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Shoes stay on the feet transiting TSA airport security line!  

The best part is, TSA Pre-Check is just a perk of the actual program I wanted, which was Global Entry.

So let’s back up a second.  Global Entry, in a nutshell, is a program that you apply for that serves as an expedited method of allowing low-risk U.S. Citizens to transit U.S. immigration lines more quickly.  If you have ever returned to the United States from a trip abroad, you know then that the immigration lines at U.S. airports can be awful.  And after a long flight from Europe or Asia, standing in an hour-long line is the last thing you want to do.  But alas, it is an unfortunate, but necessary part of travel.  The last time I went through a U.S. immigration line, it took over an hour.

I had heard the term “Global Entry” floating around on several frequent flyer blogs, but never really paid attention.  But now with planning our upcoming trip to Russia for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, I started to do a bit more research.

Applying for Global Entry is $100 per person and it lasts for five years.  I have an American Express Platinum card, which reimburses the fee for Global Entry.  When you get to the payment screen for Global Entry, just use your Amex Platinum card to pay the $100 fee.  Within three days, the $100 had been credited back to my Amex account.

Ken does not have an Amex Platinum, so he was not reimbursed for the $100 Global Entry fee.

The application for Global Entry did take a decent amount of time to complete, especially since I had changed jobs and moved several times in the past five years.

We both applied on the same day and received our conditional approval within a week.  The conditional approval allows you to set up an interview.  We both selected interview time slots, and attended the interview — a required step for Global Entry.  The CBP officers that interviewed me were very professional and courteous.  Ken said the same for his interviewer.  We received full approvals shortly after the interviews were completed.

Ken and I both have clean records and probably no other red flags. So I’m sure if you have some issue in your personal history, it could take a little longer.

When you are approved for Global Entry, you are also, by default, approved for TSA Pre-Check.  I had not realized this was a benefit until fairly late in my research.  But once I did learn that it was a benefit, I think I became more excited for Pre-Check than Global Entry, because I will utilize Pre-Check more often than Global Entry, since I fly domestically much more than I do internationally.  But, I must say, I am even more excited now for Pre-Check than I am Global Entry!  My experience with Pre-Check last week was great.