When talking to folks who travel regularly on business, you will find that they have the whole thing truly wired down to every detail; it is as routine for them as going to work every day. They know all the shortcuts -- alternate routes to the airport, where traffic gets thick, which parking lot to use, how much parking costs so they know when to use a car service versus their own car, which level of the garage has spots nearest the terminal, which security gate is usually least crowded, where to get halfway decent food, where to hover at the gate in order not to get trampled when boarding time comes and more -- and they have it wired both coming and going.
These folks barely need to think about getting to and from their local airports -- their "travel muscles" have a muscle memory that makes taking a big trip like riding a bike or swimming the crawl.
For the rest of us, who might travel every few months or even years rather than every few weeks, each upcoming trip can feel like a new disaster waiting to happen.
Folks who travel a fair amount get pretty efficient, but that doesn't mean it necessarily gets a lot easier. I admit that I fly just frequently enough to feel like I almost have it together, but I never fail to botch something. On my most recent trip, I forgot to place the mail stop in time, so the mail from the first day of our trip sat in the box until we got home, and a last-minute terminal change toppled my parking and security plan entirely.
Keeping your travel muscles toned is a matter of making sure all the lessons you learned from all your previous trips "stay learned" when your next trip is imminent. Lou Jones, a Boston-based commercial, editorial and fine art photographer and author of "Travel and Photography: Off the Charts," uses the term "lifting countries" when he talks about keeping himself ready for travel. He has already done the hard work, and just needs to stay fit to be able to come through when he needs to.
If you are reading this, you likely have plenty of experience on which to draw -- you have "lifted countries" and destinations enough that you are perpetually ready for travel, if you take a few small steps as outlined below.
Write Out a Game Plan
Every good workout routine, athlete's practice outing or game-day plan includes a good, written playbook. A packing list is a good start, and we have some other superb resources for packing, but I recommend making a truly comprehensive to-do list that you can sprint down without relying on memory; this can significantly reduce your anxiety about forgetting to do something important.
Make each instruction as clear as possible. As an example, below are some of the things on my list; I can say without reservation that I have forgotten to do every one of these items on one trip or another. I list them in more or less the order in which they need to get done, and try to run straight down it without skipping anything, if possible.
Feel free to take my list as a start, customize it into your own comprehensive trip prep document, save it to a straightforward and easily found place on your computer, then use it as a to-do list for every trip. You will blast through all the tasks leading up to a trip like the most road-tested business traveler.
- Check that your identification is current
- Pay any upcoming bills
- Put holds on mail, newspaper
- Mow lawn or set up mowing while away
- Arrange for plant watering if needed
- Buy any necessary medications, sunscreen
- Buy TSA-approved toiletries
- Choose and launder travel clothes
- Clear out any appointments (housecleaner, plumber, etc.)
- Get rid of any spoilable food
- Notify neighbors of travel
- Share contact information with neighbors and family
- Arrange for trash cans to be taken to or from curb, or move them from public view entirely
- Check time zone differences
- Put reservation numbers and confirmations on smartphone
- Send everything to TripIt
- Back up laptop, smartphone and devices
- Download movies or books to devices
- Tell everyone who is traveling what time departure for airport will be
- Get gas for car
- Get cash from ATM
- Check loyalty program status
- Check gate assignment
- Check terminal map
- Check airport parking map, prices, lot closing info
- Check airplane seats
- Check in online
- Map route to airport
- Set out which luggage to use
- Give house key to neighbor
- Make sure jumper cables are in car
- Remove valuables from car
- Charge devices
- Gather food needed for flight
- Set light timers if needed
- Check all door locks, including basement, garage and shed
- Set thermostats to vacation temps
You can add your own items; for example, if you have pets, there is a whole battery of things to do that you will want to add to the very top of your list. Children add another wrinkle. I have found that kids can be among the most carefree travelers alive (including our 6-year-old, who has 100,000+ air miles and counting), but things like "make sure travel clothes still fit" make sense on a list like this.
Like an athlete coming back to training after some time off, as you go down the list, you will find that your muscle memory of the whole process comes sailing back to you, and you will be lifting countries as well as ever.
Anticipate Local Demands -- Physical, Cultural and Otherwise
Jones has several routines he uses to keep himself tuned up both on the road and back home before a major work trip. Jones, who has photographed everything from guerilla warfare in South America and death row inmates in the U.S. to multiple Olympic Games, puts himself through a truly extreme regimen before his most critical trips. For example, in anticipation of the winter Sochi Olympics, he ran through football stadiums in boots and full winter gear so he could be in shape to climb mountains, slog through snow drifts and more while covering the Games.
Your prep might not be so extreme, but perhaps if you are traveling to the Netherlands, where everyone is on a bike all the time, you might train for the trip by riding your own bike more before you travel, so you can more fully enter into the spirit of things at your destination.
Or if you are traveling somewhere where locals walk everywhere, you can do simple things like park in the far reaches of the lot at your office or grocery store, or simply take long walks instead of going to the gym.
Another consideration is to start to adapt to time zone changes well before your trip. A simple example might be that an East Coaster who tends to go to bed early might want to start staying up a bit later before traveling to the West Coast. So if you usually go to bed at 9 p.m. (which is 6 p.m. on the West Coast), try staying up a bit later in the last few days before your trip to make it easier to get through the first few nights in the Pacific Time Zone.
Beyond purely physical challenges, you might also want to anticipate any behavioral demands that a different cultural milieu might impose. Jones, who does not drink coffee or alcohol in his daily life, will partake of both before an important photography trip. "I don't drink coffee or alcohol in a normal situation," he said. "But if you go into a souk in Egypt, the first thing they do is get you some coffee. The coffee can be like panther piss -- it is really high octane -- and you need to be able to deal with it.
"In many cultures, tea and coffee are a social lubricant, and it is important to be able to drink it and control it. In my work, it is important to be able to participate in these rituals, which help me when it comes time to take pictures of the people I meet."
He says the same of alcohol. After declining drinks with a client in Vienna on his first encounter, he realized that his hosts may have taken some offense. So he went home to Boston, got used to having a couple of beers the night before a workday and found that having a few drinks with the client "improved my ability to work with them tremendously." The client continues to hire Jones, and now they laugh when the client still razzes him a bit about "when he used not to drink."
Finally, even the slightest attempt to acquire a bit of the language will get you started in almost any situation. If you have any training in the language, dig out your old textbooks. But even if you don't, learn the following words for a start, and you can at least offer a civil greeting, figure out if the person speaks any English and exit somewhat gracefully. These four phrases are indispensible:
- Do you speak English?
- Thank you
Trust Your Experience
As a former elite athlete in rowing, I still compete a couple of times each year with old friends and teammates -- and none of us are in anything resembling peak conditioning. But after some inevitable rough strokes during the warm-up that have everyone wondering if the whole thing was such a good idea, and even some mutterings about never doing it again, we usually crank out a few promising practice efforts, head to the line and let it rip. Our times are slower than they used to be, but we put in hard and high rowing, and somehow we all get through it well enough that when we get back to the dock, everyone is talking about doing it again next year. If you have put in the miles -- lifted enough countries and destinations -- your muscle memory will get you through.