Travel Tech Gear

Once we get back from a vacation, we usually try to figure out what stuff we didn’t need on our trip and should not have packed.  One thing we almost never regret packing are our technology-related gadgets.  When we talk to friends, most of them don’t really understand why we both carry around cameras with us. I have a digital SLR and Ken has a digital SLR. Well, the short answer to that is that we BOTH like taking pictures. So that got me thinking about all our other technology-related travel gear. So, what do we take with us on vacation?

  • Canon 70D, including a zoom lens and prime lens and a recently purchased wide angle lens.
  • Canon G9. This is a smaller, advanced point and shoot that I used as my primary camera before I made the switch to DSLRs. I LOVE that little camera. Before that, I had a Canon G5 for almost five years! It’s the perfect blend of compactness and manual mode options! I always bring this on our trips in case 1) One of our cameras breaks … like Ken’s did when we went to Niagara Falls in 2009, or like mine did when watching the Shuttle Discovery flyover about two years ago in DC.  As an added bonus, we can save the day with this camera! We did a guided tour for a few days when we were in Spain in 2010. An older couple on the tour had not brought their camera battery charger with them, so we let them use this extra camera during the tour! We just e-mailed them all their pictures after we got back home!
  • Ken’s Nikon D3100 DSLR
  • Sony HD Video Camera. This is the second HD Video Camera that Ken has had. He got his first one in 2007 and upgraded in late 2010.
  • Garmin Handheld GPS (eTrex 20). Ken carries this everywhere on our vacations and uses that to sync our photos with our GPS coordinates. (It’s called geotagging. More on that in a future post!)
  • Acer Netbook. If we are going on a long and complicated trip, this is likely the only computer we bring so we don’t have to lug anything heavier. But sometimes I like to also bring …
  • My MacBook Pro if I expect to want to import my photos into Lightroom every evening or blog about the trip.
  • Backup external hard drives. Combined, we can easily take nearly 10,000 pictures on a two week trip together. Since we shoot in RAW format, that can add up to … well, countless Gigabytes of photos. Plus, we’re both compulsive about having backups of backups. So, we’ll dump our photos everyday onto the netbook and then also back that up onto one of our external hard drives in case the netbook dies, gets stolen, etc.
  • iPad.  But only sometimes.  I like to use it to read digital versions of magazines.
  • iPhones. Obviously.
  • Automobile GPS. If we’re flying somewhere and renting a car, we bring my Garmin Nuvi. But if we’re going on a local road trip, we typically take Ken’s car, which has a built in navigation system.
  • Kindles. Ken and I each have one. You know, for all that “free” time and “relaxation” you expect to have on vacation!  But, we definitely use them on airplane rides!
  • A packing cube filled with chargers (iPhone, car iPhone chargers, camera chargers, video camera chargers, laptop charger, and one Kindle charger depending on the length of the trip, and a mini power strip).

 

Even with all this gear, we typically manage to travel with just carry-ons. What’s on your tech gear packing lists?

What to Pack for Cold Weather Travel

When your vacation plans take you to Russia in February, there is one thing on your mind.

THE COLD.

Oh my goodness, the cold. In my research for what to wear in Russia in the winter, I came across this gem of a quote:

Don’t forget that the Russian winter defeated both Napoleon and Hitler. Do not underestimate how cold and windy it will be.

So, I undertook a major effort to find the warmest coat I could find. And I also did a lot of research on the science (er, theories?) behind layering clothes.

First, let’s talk about shopping online. Does anyone else shop online using this strategy like I do? I might want one thing. Like one pair of shoes or one coat. But I want to easily compare sizes and styles. So what do I do? Order multiple sizes of multiple styles and try them on as soon as they’re delivered. It’s like having my own personally curated fitting room, all from the comfort of my own home. The first time I did after we got married and combined our finances, I alerted Ken about my credit card statement. It went like this, “Do not be alarmed at the $1200 charge from Talbots. I will probably be returning about $900-$1000 worth of that stuff.”

He didn’t really blink an eye. Good job Ken!

Buying a Coat

So, before our trip to Russia, I used that same strategy for shopping for winter coats. Heavy, warm, but functional coats for Russia. But buying coats wasn’t been nearly as easy as I anticipated.

It went like this: Order three styles, don’t love them but don’t hate them, so I order two more styles from a different store, keeping the first three to compare once the second two arrive. In the meantime, I order three coats for my husband to try on. His coats arrive and I like them more than the women’s coats I’ve been ordering. But now I need to order a men’s “regular” instead of “long.” Oh, they do make a women’s version of that men’s coat I like. Let me order that one too.

Well, you get the idea. First world problems to the max. “I’m having a hard time deciding among these one dozen warm winter coats I currently have in my possession.”

At one point, there were stacks of coats on our living room floor.

I suppose we were lucky that we had SUCH a cold winter here in DC. It gave me a good opportunity to try out the coats.

The one I ended up sticking with was the Lands’ End Women’s Expedition Down Parka. Although it was a difficult decision between this one and the LL Bean Microsuede Down Coat. I liked the Microsuede Down Coat because it was longer and it felt slightly more fitted and stylish, but the hood just wasn’t as effective as the hood on the Expedition Down Parka.

As silly as this sounds, I was kind of concerned with the stylishness aspect. I read many internet threads that women in Russia wear stylish fur coats and high heels no matter how icy the sidewalks are. Well, both of those options were not for me. So I was prepared to stick out with my unstylish coat and hiking boots. But, as I mentioned right after we got back from Russia, everyone assumed we were Russian no matter what city we were in, so I guess we didn’t stand out that much!

Layering

I did a lot of research on layering before we left. Base layers, mid-layers, and shell layers, and all that.

I’m a real wimp when it comes to cold weather (what can I say, I’m an embarrassment to my hometown of Pittsburgh), so I really wanted to layer effectively to stay warm.

Again, after much trial and error during our Polar Vortex here in the DC area, I decided on the following:

Base Layers

Mid Layers

Shell Layers

I’m not sure if these are technically considered “shells.” But since I wore these items as my outermost layers, I am considering them to be my “shell” layer

I did not actually wear a “mid layer” on my legs, but I did pack a pair of fleece leggings in case it was necessary.

Accessories

  • Eddie Bauer Essential Down Mittens (I was a little concerned about using mittens because I wasn’t sure how it would affect being able to take pictures and hitting the shutter button quickly and effectively. But I had no problem whatsoever.)
  • Glove liners (I packed these but never used them)
  • Sock liners – In 2012 during our Southwest USA road trip, I had the most perfect sock liners from REI. But I can’t find them anymore! These ones from Amazon worked to keep me warm and sweat-free, but they were quite tight as they approached the calf. I would try to find a different brand in the future.
  • Socks – Several pairs of my favorite socks (these and these)
  • Earmuffs (also never used because I would just put up my hood when necessary, but they were good to have)
  • Boots – I’ve had these boots for about a year and a half and I really like them for their comfort and support. I tinkered with buying some traditional “snow boots” for the trip to Russia, including boots that were calf height instead of ankle height, but I didn’t think any of them would be comfortable enough for extended walking and standing. These Keen boots were probably the most comfortable of the snow boots that I tried on.
  • Hand warmers (we used these during the mountain events in Sochi, since we were outdoors for such an extended period of time.)

Did it work?

So, the answer to the real question: Was I cold in Russia? Although the coastal areas of Sochi were quite warm, Moscow and St. Petersburg were definitely cold and wet. We spent a lot of time outdoors in both of those cities, and not once was my wimpy self shivering and/or miserable from the cold. Nope! I am so glad that I took the time to try out so many different coats and layering options. It really paid off.

The base layers were really key. After a long day of touring, we went back to our hotel to rest. While we were there, I changed into my pajama pants. Later that night, we decided to go out to dinner, so I changed back into my jeans. I couldn’t figure out why I was SO COLD while walking to dinner. Then I realized I had forgotten to put on my base layer pants! That was actually a fun accidental experiment. It showed me just how effective those base layers are!

I feel like now that I have this whole cold-weather travel gear down pat, I need to utilize it for other travels! Maybe I should book some upcoming Alaska and Iceland trips!

A few final tips

If you are traveling somewhere in January or February, make sure you start shopping for your cold weather gear in November, or no later than Christmas. After Christmas we actually had a really hard time finding cold-weather gear in stock in stores or even online. I guess stores start to clear out their cold weather inventory after the Christmas season.

In a future post, I’ll write about the cold weather gear that I purchased but didn’t work for me, either because it wasn’t warm enough or the fit was weird.

Have you traveled to any frigid weather destinations?  What did you pack?

Reviewing my Travel Checklists for our Trip to Russia

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.

wpid-travel-packing-lists-and-checklists-2014-01-21-14-55.jpg

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

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.

tsa-pre-check-shoes-stay-on

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.