Airfare, hotel accommodations and rental cars may be the holy trinity of travel preparation, but nailing down these aspects of your vacation is only the beginning of the trip planning process. If you want to achieve a smooth, headache-free trip (and who doesn't?), taking care of essential tasks like researching activities at your destination, managing your finances and getting your home in order is key. Don't leave home without accomplishing the following 10 tasks!
Once you have a travel date, your first move should be to contact your pet kennel or house sitter (or any other trustworthy service) to guarantee availability. You may even want to take care of this before booking; as reader E.B. Hughes writes, "I have had to pay change fees twice since we got our dog just because the local kennel was full for one night of my trip."
Once your travel is booked, you should look into placing "stop" orders on any regularly occurring deliveries or services. These may include postal mail, newspapers, housecleaners and the like. If you want particular services to continue (such as landscaping), consider paying in advance if this is not your usual arrangement.
Many service providers allow you to place stop orders online; this is particularly the case for mail delivery and most newspapers. As most stop orders require one or two business days' advance notice, make sure you take care of this at least three days before you travel.
If you're traveling domestically, be sure to hit your own bank before leaving for your trip; that way you won't arrive short on cash and have to immediately search for an ATM. Further, you will save on ATM fees at machines run by someone other than your own bank. These fees cost Americans billions of dollars annually, and can be exorbitant if you are forced to use airport or convenience store machines. Go to your bank's website and map out any available ATM locations near your destination so you are not forced to use other banks' machines.
If you're traveling overseas, the most economical option is to visit an ATM as soon as you arrive in your destination and make a withdrawal in the local currency. Check the website of the airport where you'll be arriving to make sure it has an ATM you can use. Most international airports have several, but if you're flying to a smaller airport in a developing country, there's no guarantee that there will be one (or that it will be working properly). In these cases, you may want to purchase some local currency ahead of time. For more details, see ATMs Abroad.
Call your bank or credit card company and let them know about your travel plans. Most banks and credit card companies keep track of spending patterns and may interpret an unexpected overseas purchase as credit card fraud. Your bank or credit card company could lock your account if you use your card in another country without notifying them.
The first day of your trip is often lost to logistics and unfamiliar surroundings. First you have to haul yourself and your stuff to a resting place. Then you have to figure out exactly where you are, what attractions are nearby and how best to use your limited time. Planning ahead will help you make the most of that first confusing day.
You may want to 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.
Similarly, if you're going to be driving during your trip, it may be worth mapping out that first route ahead of time. Some car rental companies offer GPS units, but they're not always in English and they may not be in working order. Figuring out how to get where you are going in an unfamiliar location from a one-page map choked with advertising is another way to risk more than just your afternoon; you could end up driving around with the doors locked and windows sealed in a neighborhood that is anything but tourist- or outsider-friendly. Mapping out your first drive as though you were mapping out an escape route will save you time and anxiety in those first stressful hours of your trip.
While we're talking about driving, there is one modern item that has become an essential packing item: the cell phone earpiece or any other Bluetooth device that allows you to keep both hands on the wheel (and without a phone wedged between your neck and your shoulder). Local laws governing cell phone use while driving vary considerably, sometimes from one municipality to the next. Pack your hands-free device in your carry-on bag and you will not find yourself on the side of the road with a red siren whirling in your rearview mirror.
You never know where you will find the "best of" in any given endeavor; for example, two of the best guitar stores in the world can be found in Staten Island, NY, and Carlsbad, CA. Who knew? Melbourne, Australia, is renowned for its rich coffee culture, and Udaipur offers cycling enthusiasts spectacular paths for exploring rural India. Do a little research and you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find at your destination.
On a trip to Seattle a few years ago, a quick Web search on public transit produced two very worthwhile pieces of information: 1) the public monorail system was not working, and 2) the downtown bus system was free for the entire length of downtown. Not surprisingly for Seattle, it rained all weekend, and those buses proved very useful in making short trips of a few blocks, for which you would not want to drive, but neither did you want to slog through in the rain. (Editor's Note: Seattle's downtown buses are no longer free.)
A bit of research online before you leave will also allow you to check fares, print transit maps and plan your itinerary.
Most cities and even medium-sized towns have some kind of weekly entertainment rag, such as Time Out New York, Time Out London or even the Ticket entertainment insert in Montgomery Township, PA.
These are excellent sources for entertainment listings, reviews, city "best-of" lists and more. It is best to check these from home, as you can then purchase advance tickets where necessary, make restaurant reservations, etc.
The weather is the single factor most likely to affect your trip positively or negatively, and one of the things many people most take for granted. Of course it is going to be warm in Spain during the spring -- but there are always exceptions to prevailing weather patterns, especially during transitional seasons. A weather forecast can guide your packing strategy, and failure to check the weather can result in unprepared, unhappy and very soggy travelers.
Bonus tip: This one applies to airlines and hotels, so I won't count it against the 10 tips: The most important thing you can program into your cell phone is the phone number of your airline; the second-most important is the direct phone number of your hotel. Do it now!
Bonus tip #2: Reader Alan G. wrote in with the following recommendation: "Plan your LAST day (as well as your first)! Keep safely in a packet marked 'GOING HOME' your house keys, car keys, cash for taxi or tolls, phone chip and documents you'll need when you arrive happy but exhausted at your hometown airport. Unpacking your luggage at the arrivals area is no fun."
The Independent Traveler