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stress travel stressed out traveler businessman suitcaseCountdown to departure: three days. Before I board a flight to Vancouver on Thursday, I have to finish packing, call my credit card company, do laundry, print boarding passes, clean out the fridge, confirm my reservations … so many details, so little time!

Am I curled up, knees to chest, in a stress-induced stupor? Not exactly. I’ve adopted a few strategies for handling the pre-trip panic phase:

1. Make a list — or several.
This weekend, I jotted down a clothing inventory for each day of my trip, a more general packing list (medications, umbrella, etc.) and a list of everything I had to do before I left. Having everything laid out in writing helped me get organized … and gave me the satisfaction of whittling down my mountain of tasks one by one. (Our handy interactive packing list can help with this step.)

2. Start early.
Dumping drawers on the floor in search of your passport hours before your departure is, to put it mildly, poor planning. I headed off last-minute panic attacks by starting the packing process several days before my flight. As it happened, I discovered that my passport was indeed where I left it — score! — but that I was missing a few other odds and ends. Luckily, I still have a couple of days to run to the store. Crisis averted.

3. Have a plan.
As Ed Hewitt points out in 10 Things to Do Before You Travel, the first day of a trip is often the most nerve-wracking as you figure out how to get around an unfamiliar new place. He suggests making a plan before you leave: “Sketch out a walk near your digs, which can help you get oriented as well as shake off travel fatigue and jet lag. Also, check out any nearby amenities — like a rooftop lounge nearby, a balcony with a choice view or a heated pool for maximum chill-out at the end of a harried travel day.”

As for me, I looked up public transportation options from the airport to where I’m staying, so I know exactly where to go once my plane touches down. And I’ve scribbed down a few yummy-sounding neighborhood restaurants for that first night’s dinner.

4. Let go.
Once you’ve taken care of all the important stuff (the passport is packed now, right? RIGHT?), try not to waste too much energy on the rest. Slow down, take a deep breath and focus your fevered brain on how much fun you’ll have on your trip, rather than all the tiny little details you might have forgotten.

If you’re looking for me on Thursday, I’ll be in one of those airport massage chairs — having my last few twinges of travel tension gently rubbed away.

What do you do to reduce pre-trip stress?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

At the Airport By most accounts, the skies are expected to be a lot more crowded this summer. While domestic travel has yet to reach pre-recession levels, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times indicates that U.S. airlines will be carrying a record number of passengers overseas in the coming months. For this reason, I offer a cautionary tale.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done on a trip overseas:

After firming up plans to fly to Venice last month on a business trip, I discovered that my wife Janet could accompany me at the last minute. (Woo hoo! No lonely dinners during which I pretend to read in dim light!) Problem was, if she was to accompany me on my Lufthansa flights, the fare would be a whopping $3,000 round trip. We’d save $2,000 if she flew US Airways to Frankfurt, where we’d meet and fly together to Venice.

So far, so good. I departed Philadelphia and stopped for a four-hour layover in Germany, where I chilled and I waited for her to meet me. With 15 minutes to go before the flight to Venice, she was nowhere to be found. The Lufthansa gate agent told me that her Philly flight had been delayed and that the passengers bound for Venice had already been rebooked on a later flight. “You can meet her at your hotel,” the agent informed me.

Here comes the stupid part: I had Janet’s itinerary in my carry-on. I’d forgotten to give it to her in the rush at the airport, and she had no idea where we were staying in Venice. I arrived in Venice in full panic mode, wondering whether I should wait six hours for her to show up or head to the hotel and try to reach out via e-mail (her phone didn’t work overseas). Jet lag won out: I headed to the hotel, a $50 cab ride away.

Turns out Janet was panicking a couple of time zones away and had borrowed a phone. I never thought to turn mine on. I sent her a half-dozen e-mails (when, really, one would have done the trick), but she never thought to log on to the Internet at the Frankfurt airport. Frazzled and exhausted, I grabbed a cab three hours before her expected arrival and headed back to the airport. I’d rather be waiting for her than the other way around.

But hold on … having hopped on an earlier flight, Janet was hunched over the luggage carousel when I arrived. She looked frazzled and exhausted as well. We grabbed each other’s hands and jumped into the same cab I’d caught at the hotel.

The lessons here: Don’t be careless when you’re traveling overseas on different flights. Share all the relevant information about accommodations and transfers before you part ways with your travel companion. Have two phones that can dial internationally, or set up a plan of action in case you get separated (i.e., check the Internet). Don’t rely on a gate agent who has only a passing interest in whatever predicament you’re in. And learn from someone else’s stupid mistake.

— written by John Deiner

overweight woman stretch stretching water bridge deckShould obese people have to pay for extra seats on a plane? In recent weeks, there’s been a revival of one of the travel industry’s perennial controversies; this time the debate was sparked by Southwest’s attempt to bar two overweight women from a flight, even though they’d flown without incident on previous legs of the same trip. (They were eventually allowed to board.)

It’s an issue we’ve covered several times over the years — see Airline Obesity Policies and Is Kevin Smith Too Fat to Fly? — but as a reader recently reminded us, there are other concerns facing obese travelers that don’t get anywhere near as much press.

“I’m a big girl. I’m 5’9″ and 265 pounds. Sometimes I worry about booking things because they won’t accommodate my size,” wrote member acurves on our message boards. “I’m going to be in Hawaii for two weeks this June, and there are so many things I want to do! Parasailing, dolphin encounters, catamaran sailing, snorkeling, etc. I’m just afraid that I’m too big to do those things.

“Trust me — I want to do these things. I may not move much at home, but I’m an active girl on vacation. I love hikes, walks around the city, being active. I’m definitely not lazy when I’m on vacation. I just want to know if any other bigger people have done the things I listed above. It would be embarrassing to go and have them say I’m too big!”

It’s true that some activities do have weight restrictions, usually for safety reasons. For example, UFO Parasailing, a company that runs excursions on Lahaina, Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii, lists a weight limit of 450 pounds for two or three people flying together. (The svelte travelers among us aren’t necessarily off the hook: to fly alone, you have to weigh at least 130 pounds.) The Sky Trek Canopy Tour in Costa Rica, a zip line operator, does not permit guests weighing more than 217 pounds; in addition, your waist may be no larger than 58 inches, and your thighs no bigger around than 30 inches. (This is to make sure you can fit into the safety harness.)

Other activities, such as snorkeling or dolphin excursions, are much less likely to have weight restrictions. But keep in mind that a certain amount of agility may be required; paddling through the sea with your snorkel and flippers may be easy enough at any weight, but clambering up a narrow ladder onto a dive boat could be difficult for larger travelers who are less active.

Your best bet for any type of activity is to contact the operator directly before you book. Ask not only about weight limitations but also about the level of fitness required to participate safely in the activity. Many tour operators will do their best to accommodate people of all sizes and physical abilities.

Has your weight ever restricted you from doing things you wanted to do in your travels?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

travel plan map itinerary trip planningAre you the type of traveler that plans a detailed itinerary for each trip, or do you prefer to fly — or drive — by the seat of your pants? We recently posed this question on our Facebook page and discovered that when it comes to our readers, there’s no one travel style that fits all.

Writes Crystal-Grace S., “Spontaneity is key for me. Pick a place, do loads of research (travel articles, history, talk with folks who have been there), buy a travel ticket and then — take each day as it comes!”

Lori N.B. prefers a little more structure, but finds herself intrigued by the lure of the other side: “I’m a planner but one day I’d like to do a spontaneous trip just to break out of my box.”

Ken T.M. keeps it simple: “Either one as long as I’m traveling somewhere.” Amen to that!

There are pitfalls to either approach. Over-plan your trip and you could miss out on opportunities that come up at the last minute … or spend so much time dashing from one activity to another that you don’t get to fully appreciate any of them. (In fact, trying to cram too much into a single vacation is one of our Five Worst Trip Planning Mistakes.) But if you show up in a new place without doing your homework, you could find yourself standing in disappointment outside a museum you didn’t realize was closed on Mondays, or overlooking a fantastic restaurant you would have loved if only you’d read about it in your guidebook.

Discover useful tips for both planners and improvisers in Five Simple Ways to Make the Most of Your Vacation.

Are you a planner or a more spontaneous traveler?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

guidebooksI’m currently in the final stages of booking a New England leaf-peeping vacation for October. In my trip-planning pile, alongside a few maps and an ever-expanding packing list, I’ve got a stack of at least five area guidebooks that I’ve checked out from my local library.

Will I lug all those heavy guidebooks with me on my trip? No way; even though I’m driving, not flying, I’m still aiming to pack as lightly as possible. But I’ve relied on this array of guidebooks to help me find hotels and plot out my itinerary, and you can bet that one or two of my favorites will find their way into my suitcase on departure day.

To some travelers, this probably seems perfectly logical. To others, I must sound like a dinosaur.

Last month, London’s Financial Times issued a lengthy report on the declining sales of traditional print guidebooks and the rise of new technology (such as mobile apps and iPad guides) that is emerging to replace them. Why would someone need a guidebook, asks the article, when you can use an “augmented reality app” like Google Goggles on your smartphone to find a wealth of free, up-to-the-second information about your destination?

The media has been prophesying the death of guidebooks for years now. Back in 2006, the Guardian speculated that podcasts would be the newcomer to knock guidebooks off their perch. In the past decade, Web sites offering thousands of traveler-generated hotel and restaurant reviews have tried to drown out the opinions of a few professional travel writers. And of course there have always been detractors who suggest that guidebooks are a crutch standing in the way of getting to know a place in a truly genuine way, by relying solely on one’s own eyes and experiences.

Despite all this, I still feel that guidebooks play an important role — though not the only role — in planning and taking a trip. The combination of maps, recommended itineraries, comprehensive reviews and historical context is something I haven’t found in any other single source, so I’ll continue to use guidebooks as long as they continue to be printed.

What about you — do you still use print guidebooks to help you plan a trip, or have you turned to other resources?

–written by Sarah Schlichter