Airport Parking: My New Favorite Travel Tool

One of the travel expenses often overlooked is getting to and from the airport. If you live in the city near your airport, you probably have cheap and speedy public transportation. In Chicago, for example, the CTA orange line drops you off inside Midway, and the blue line, inside O’Hare. Yay for you. Seriously.

But many travelers don’t have that option. We’re faced with a pricey cab ride, mooching a ride from family or friends, or driving ourselves and swallowing the cost of expensive airport parking.

This post is for those of you in that category.

Some time ago, we exhausted our familial transportation option. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to ask for another ride to the airport at 5am. Or a ride home at 11pm.

So we changed it up and starting taking a taxi. It was pretty reliable, with some drawbacks. I’d worry whether the driver would show up on time. Once, we ended up taking side streets to the airport for heaven knows what reason.

And then there’s spending 40 awkward minutes with a stranger. Okay, I’ll admit it, we have some good stories. Like driver Hoover Hong’s long-winded recollection of driving solo from Chicago to Alaska, during which he saw a ghost. Or, in his words, repeated many, many times, “Awwww, sheeeeeeet, a, how you say, ghooooose!?”

Or the Russian math teacher who has figured out how to consistently win the lottery—“I just trust my guts, you know?”

Recently, my mom passed along a resource for cheap airport parking, and now we drive in peace, on time, to the airport, and don’t have to pay a small fortune to do so.

It’s called Airportparkingreservations.com. Plug in your airport, your dates and times, and you’ll get a list of all parking options and the prices. Recently, we parked at an off-site lot with a free shuttle to O’Hare for $5.99 a day for nine days, a fairly long trip, and even that turned out to be cheaper than a cab. That’s in comparison to the $18 a day to park at O’Hare itself.

Plus, they have a rewards system, and we keep getting $5 credits for doing virtually nothing, like signing up for the newsletter, liking them on Facebook, booking another reservation within 3 months, and referring a friend.

Check it out for your next trip. And let me know if you want to sign up so I can refer you and get myself some $5 credits.

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A Checklist for Car Campers

To bring an end to our week of camping posts, I bring you this handy, dandy car-camping checklist.

Gear:

  • Tent
  • Tarps
  • Small entry rug—so you can comfortable take off your shoes before you enter your tent
  • Chair
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow (or just stuff some of your clothes into a pillow case)
  • Headlamp
  • Lantern
  • Bug repellent (Thermacell or Permethrin)

Tools:

  • Mallet
  • Hatchet for chopping wood
  • Knife/Scissors
  • Nylon rope—for a clothesline, for making a tarp shelter, for hanging food, etc.
  • Duct tape—because you always need it for something
  • Dust pan and whisk broom (for brushing up the inside of your tent)

Kitchen:

  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Large spoon
  • Spatula
  • Tongs with long arms—great for cooking over a campfire and stoking the fire
  • Pot
  • Plates, utensils, and mugs
  • Some means for making coffee, such as one of these.
  • Foil
  • Matches/long-nosed butane lighter
  • Fire-starting aids—buy them or make your own
  • Spice kit: use a pill holder and place a different spice in each day of the week, like salt, pepper, oregano, cayenne, seasoned salt, thyme, and paprika.
  • Tablecloth
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Trash bags
  • Dish towel
  • Sponge
  • Dish soap
  • Camp sink: one tub for washing, one tub for rinsing
  • Baby wipes
  • Paper towels
  • Plenty of water

Clothes for around camp:

  • Hat (for tick protection and warmth)
  • Long sleeved shirt
  • Fleece or hoodie and long pants (regardless of how warm it’s supposed to be—trust me on that!)
  • Easy on/easy off camp shoes
  • Sleeping clothes, so you’re not dragging the day’s muck into your sleeping bag

The Universal Packing List, Part 2: Things You Don’t Wear

[Charlie Williams is a former classical pianist turned app developer, and former Midwesterner turned expat. He now lives in London with a Canadian novelist-musician (and fellow GGG contributor), and of course they met while traveling.]

Official jetsetter photo of the author in Tokyo. Not pictured: all this gear.                             (c) Emma Hooper

[Our universal packing list continues from yesterday with non-clothes items…]

1. Sunscreen. The number of countries where sunscreen is often unavailable (Greece!) or approaches $40/tube (Germany!) is shocking. Also when you leave from a place like England, it’s easy to forget that the sun exists at all or could possibly have the power to burn you.

2. Passport. This goes in a trouser/jacket pocket along with your wallet and phone: the three things you will repeatedly and compulsively check that you have not yet lost whenever walking around anywhere.

3. Student ID / driving license / credit cards go in the wallet. Take a minute to take out the grocery-store loyalty card, old receipts, cash from your home country, burrito-store punch card and so on. That can all go in a pile on your dresser so your wallet is nice and thin when you spend hours sitting on it on a plane.

4. Phone. A smartphone, obviously. Despite the ridiculous difficulty of finding data coverage overseas (it’s probably even worse for you poor people whose phone plans are based in the oligarchic hell that is the American mobile market) the utility of a handheld computer/camera/GPS device is compounded incredibly by the fact that while traveling you will not know the things that the internet can easily tell you, and need to stop constantly on street corners to do several searches (Google, email, AirBNB, TripAdvisor) for all sorts of basic stuff like “Where am I sleeping tonight?” “What’s good to eat near here?” “What does that sign say?” or “Why is there a statue of a giant-testicled bear outside of every store?”

5. iPad mini. In normal life I spend ridiculous amounts of time making computers do neat things that they didn’t do before. It is very hard for me to make the decision to not bring a laptop. Thankfully, we now have the iPad, which is basically a computer that is easier to carry around in a backpack and doesn’t run a C compiler. Leave this home if you are not a nerd, but know that this—yes, this very article—was written using said iPad mini on a Japanese bullet train. Jetsetting? Guilty. Awesome? Yes.

6. Charger for both: Part of the grand plan of simplicity is that these both charge off the same cable, which is USB at the electricity-goes-in-here end. USB is a traveler’s dream. In fact, it’s my opinion that now that it has been standardized, USB should be the only way a nonlethal amount of electricity is ever put into anything. You can charge your stuff off the wall, off a computer in an internet café, off the computer at your couchsurfing/AirBNB hosts’ place, or on a flight if you are lucky enough to get a newer plane. The best. Everything—cars! coffee pots!—should run on USB.

7. Headphones: noise-reducing fancy ones like these if you can spare the $300 (£300 in the UK, because—choose your own adventure—Amazon.com can’t do math or they hate Europeans). Also beware that these, despite being an amazing demonstration of sound technology, are not actually very robust and so you will need to be that person who always tucks them carefully away in their dedicated carrying case, or else be that cranky person on the plane whose headphones only cancel noise in one ear. This is the most expensive and also the most optional item on the list. Still, I would pack it. The amount that these help preserve sanity on long flights is so great that I would still bring them even if I knew they would break every… hmm, eight flights? Ten flights? They are really quite good.

8. Snacks for the plane.

9. Book (disposable).

10. The pocketknife that always makes it through security. Or not. But, you know, if I really didn’t know where I was going, I would bring this knife.

11. A small notebook (i.e. moleskine) with all travel directions written down. You will have no network connection and a dead battery, your train will have been late and you will be trying to get to your B&B at 1 a.m. You will be running to make a connection. You will have to ask sketchy people for help with directions to whom you would not want to hand an expensive mobile phone. You will be glad you wrote everything down.

12. Screenshots of all maps. The maps you drew in that notebook are crap. You still don’t have an internet connection, though. Screenshot all the maps you could ever want, so they’re in your photos instead of your web browser. Until someone comes out with a good offline Google Maps client that allows you to say “preload maps in this area and don’t clear them until I say so”, this is the best solution.

Um, OK, that’s it. Wow. That is longer than I expected, but with clever packing should still all be backpackable. In real life, of course, you’ll know where you’re going ahead of time, so you can swap out some things in order to be a bit less spartan in other areas. The main thing, of course, though, is that it’s personal. And impermanent— I’m sure in a year or two I’ll be packing some different things for wherever I’m going then.

I’m genuinely curious about what other people would bring in this situation—what would you bring? What on the list do you think is just madness to bring? To not bring? Let me know in the comments, and happy packing!

The Universal Packing List, Part 1: Things You Wear

[Charlie Williams is a former classical pianist turned app developer, and former Midwesterner turned expat. He now lives in London with a Canadian novelist-musician (and fellow GGG contributor), and of course they met while traveling.]

Where this thought experiment began…  (c) Charlie Williams

Riding a cable car down a Japanese mountain on my last trip—one of these mornings that dawns frosty and then is almost-swimming weather by lunchtime— I had a thought-experiment: What would you pack if you didn’t know where you were going? Say you were going somewhere, abroad, for two weeks, tomorrow? What things would be the most difficult, expensive, or time-consuming to pick up on the road? What things do you just need to continue having your own personal version of? What’s the most flexible way to have what you need and not become one of those people— lugging around a suitcase on what should obviously be a backpack holiday?

Our rules for the experiment: One backpack, plus what you can reasonably wear/have in your pockets on a plane.

Here’s my list. Some of it is, of course, groaningly obvious. Other things are “travel hacks” that I’ve come upon recently, or that I’m particularly proud of having incorporated into my travel routine. And, there are a few commandments here which I would have liked to have followed, but only really figured out on this last trip. Here, then, a snapshot of what must necessarily be a never-complete document. And yet—if you want to challenge me, I will happily accept your plane tickets, pack what’s on this list, and report back upon my return.

1. Swimsuit. Obviously. I will swim in Antarctica. Emma (my travel partner) would swim on the fucking moon. If you don’t swim on your holiday, you have probably lost. But at least the swimsuit didn’t take up much space in your bag.

2. 5 pairs underwear, or 1 per day, whichever is fewer. Any trip longer than five days will give you time to do some hotel-room hand-laundry. That, or just wear each pair twice—which I’ll admit is a controversial practice probably deserving of its own post.

3. 3-4 pairs normal socks, 1-2 pairs running socks (It is easy to buy socks. On the other hand, you always need more socks. How risk-averse are you? Adjust if you must; socks are small.)

4. Sunglasses. Duh. Unless, that is, you want to get hilarious ones where you’re going. Everywhere in the world sells sunglasses of dubious quality for about $5. This can be a souvenir of some utility.

5. 1 pair, and one pair only, shoes suitable for running and normal use. I ordered a pair of these before leaving, which could work as One Shoe To Rule Them All—in this thought experiment, if I ended up in a hot place I’d get some sandals, so that the shoes got a chance to dry out a little, and if I was somewhere really cold or muddy I might want something a little more heavyweight. In a real-life travel situation you’ll probably have some kind of clue what climate you’re heading to and can mega-slim down your total weight and bulk by finding the willpower to not overpack shoes. (Because these didn’t arrive in time, what I did instead was bring an old pair of running shoes I ditched partway through, after our main mountain climb and before I hit the Tokyo thrift stores. In real life if I were going somewhere that I definitely didn’t want to buy shoes from, or if I had to look actually proper-nice and do some hikes, I might bring a nice pair of shoes in addition to the runners. Sssshhh.)

6. Two t-shirts. (One t-shirt and one tank top if you wear that sort of thing.) You will definitely, anywhere in the world, have an opportunity to acquire a good local t-shirt for next to nothing. But first, of course, you will have many, many opportunities to acquire a horrible, tacky faux-local t-shirt for approximately $45.

7. Jumper or hoodie. A jumper is a sweater, you Yanks, but it’s often a little bit nicer-looking. This you wear onto the plane. It will help you sleep.

8. 2 pair trousers (One of which you have no emotional attachment to, would throw away, cut up, stain, trade away, etc. when you are packing to come home and have to sacrifice something to bring back whatever cool thing you bought in the bazaar. Or when you realize the place you’re going to is extremely hot and you need more shorts.)

9. Running shorts.

10. Running top. What, you don’t run? Start. It is the best. Two of the many things running will cure include a crippling lack of self-confidence and jet lag.

11. Light/waterproof jacket. There is no such thing as a waterproof jacket. But you know the type.

[Tomorrow: Things you don’t wear!]

When to Go, When to Return

As I was trying to figure out if I could go out of town during my week off before starting the new gig (answer: no. It’ll just be too stressful, time-wise and money-wise, to try.) one of the important factors was, What day should I leave, and what day should I come back?

When left to my own devices, if I’m going to take a week-long trip, I go Wednesday to Tuesday or Wednesday. I’ve found Wednesday to be pretty consistently the cheapest day of the week to travel. That makes sense, right? If people are taking a long weekend, they leave Thursday or Friday and come back Monday or Tuesday, leaving Wednesday as odd man out of the days of the week club.

But you’re not always taking a whole-week trip. If you’re only going for a long weekend, which pair of days make the most sense? My preference is to leave Friday and come back Monday, because this leaves the full weekend to be somewhere, including a lazy Sunday–nothing ruins a perfectly good Sunday more than having to wake up to an alarm and deal with transit.

What about times to leave? Do you leave in the evening after work or on the morning of the next day? That’s a trade-off between how much money you want to spend (on an extra night in a hotel) versus how much time you want to take at your destination (one extra evening and morning). Plus, there’s that additional thrill of bringing your suitcase with you to work, so everybody knows you’re going out of town, and having to leave the office at a specific time because you’ve got a flight/train/car to catch, and not having to wait several more hours for your vacation to truly begin.

And the one on which I disagree with most people: when do you go back to work? Do you come home and go back to work the very next day? Or do you take one more day off to get back into the swing of things, to do laundry, to go grocery shopping, to get your life back in order? (Most people only consider this for longer trips, but I know at least one person, namely the art director of this site, who thinks it’s required for even a two-day camping trip.) I think, if you really want to make the most of your limited vacation time, you’ve got to dive right back into work, so that you don’t waste a day off on running errands and catching up on a little sleep. I can understand, though, the people who want to take that one extra day. It sort of lets the relaxation of vacation sink in a little deeper. It lets you ease back into life. And hey, if it helps you enjoy the trip more, go for it. It’s your time, after all. You get to pick when you go, and you get to pick when you return, even if that’s a day after you actually come back.

Favorite Trip Planning Tools: Sites that tell you where to go and when to go

There are two types of vacations: 1) The I-don’t-care-where-I-go-I-just-need-to-get-the-heck-out-of-here, and 2) the I-really-want-to-go-to-there vacation. How do you get started on your planning? Each type requires a slightly different approach. Here are a few tools that help.

Know where you want to go, but not sure when is the best time?
If you have your mind made up about a destination but aren’t sure when to go, this is the site to use.

Does anyone about this awesome little tool? Buried at the bottom of Hotwire’s homepage, a tiny button takes you to Hotwire’s Trip Starter, and I don’t know of another site that aggregates this kind of information for travelers in one place.

Plug in your starting point and your destination, and Trip Starter displays a chart showing you when hotels and airfare are cheapest, based on historical averages. Scroll down a wee bit and it shows you monthly averages for temperature and precipitation. In the right-hand column, they sum up for you the cheapest time to go and the best time to go.

Weather.com has monthly averages too, but good luck navigating to it—their website has tons of decent info that’s impossible to find. Your best bet is to Google “Denver annual weather” and look for the Weather.com link in the search results, shown below.

Once you’ve done a little homework on Trip Starter, ItaSoftware.com offers a matrix that will spit out the cheapest airfare for your destination based on a month-long window and the number of nights you want to stay.

Know when you want to travel, but not sure where?

There are a few sites where you can specify your departure city, month of travel, and budget, and it’ll spit out airfares to any destinations that match. Of the ones I’m aware of, Kayak Explore has the best options for refining your search. In addition to the parameters noted above, you can search by season rather than by month (ie, Fall 2013), what kind of weather you want, and the types of activities you’re interested in (ie, beach).

Check out the Where-to-Go Getaway Map on Farecompare.com, too. You plug in your starting destination, the month you want to travel, and your budget per person for airfare, and the map displays rates for destinations all over the world.

At airfarewatchdog.com, you can also search for fares from your departure city. No pretty maps, and the date selection tool isn’t as straightforward, but they come up with some sales that other airfare sites don’t find, so it’s definitely worth a look.

So what are your favorite planning tools?

Why does renting a car always feel like a gamble?

My husband has this need to take a cool photo of our rental car on every trip. I don’t know why he wants to remember our cars so badly, because in my opinion, renting a car has the highest potential for disaster on any given trip.

There are lots of travel situations when I’d recommend a local company over a multinational corporation. For instance, boutique hotels are more personal than name brand hotels. Local restaurants are better than chains. Local guides are more private and customizable than cruise-ship expedition trips.

But when it comes to car rentals, go with the big guys: Hertz, Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, or National.

Yes, even with these big, multinational brands, renting a car can feel like a gamble. If you’ve ever read the Tribune’s Sunday Travel section, you’ll see a pattern. Every other week or so, the columnist goes to bat for a disgruntled traveler who got screwed by a car rental company.

Most commonly people are charged for damages that existed before they ever got in the rental car. So you have to know how to protect yourself. Always take photos of any dents or scratches before you pull out of the lot. It’s best when the company provides you with a diagram so you can mark damages and hand over a copy before you drive away.

These big companies are also perfecting some pretty sly sales pitches, making consumers believe that buying their insurance or prepaying for gas is not only a good idea, but that it’s what most drivers do. It’s not.  I recommend getting a credit card that provides free car rental insurance coverage rather than paying the steep charge they agency will offer you at the desk. And never prepay for gas; what if you don’t use it? And it’s going to be cheaper to fill up on your way back to the airport.

Even with all the pitfalls of the major agencies, it’s still a safer bet than the alternative. And even though I consider myself a fairly savvy traveler, I almost made that rookie mistake.

In a trusted Costa Rica guidebook the writer noted that she has always had a good experience with U-Save, a rental agency that serves Costa Rica. Because I liked the guidebook overall, I trusted the recommendation and booked the rental. U-Save was about half the cost of the multinational big boys. I felt great about it. Sure, the name was weird, and sure, I’d never heard of them before, but they had a solid recommendation. So why not give it a try?

As the weeks wore on and the trip got closer, I started getting a nagging feeling. I noticed a few reviews of the guidebook online that called into question its accuracy. What if they were wrong about U-Save? I checked Kayak, but rentals from the familiar companies were running $150 more. I could think of a lot of better ways to spend that $150. I held out.

But the feeling wouldn’t dissipate. I googled “U-Save Costa Rica.” A lengthy Tripadvisor thread confirmed what I already knew: extra charges, billing issues, unresponsive customer service, getting less of a car than you paid for, charging you for more than you reserved, a “big headache,” “crooks,” “fraudulent,” a “scam,” “avoid by all means,” “avoid this company like the plague,” and on and on.

I rebooked with Alamo about 4 seconds later. It wasn’t cheap. But while I could have potentially saved $150 with U-Save, I also could have potentially ended up spending hundreds on a lost deposit, getting charged for bogus cleaning fees, or having my whole trip tarnished with an unnecessary and stressful hassle.

Of course, there may be some great, smaller rental agencies out there that provide renters with great customer service and fair prices. But do your due diligence. Look into them online. Give them a call directly and feel them out. Only book if you’ve done your homework.

Peace of mind has a price tag. And while Alamo may still try to ding me for a scratch, at least I have recourse with a big, American corporation that has a reputation to uphold among consumers.

Rental car on Kauai.

Other tips for booking a car rental:

  • Most good companies don’t require a credit card to book. Those companies also don’t require a cancellation window, so you can change/cancel your reservation any time.
  • If you give your credit card to make a reservation, read the fine print very carefully. Look for cancellation fees. If the fine print is vague, don’t book.
  • If you prepay on Priceline or Hotwire, the agency may hold on to a deposit of a couple hundred dollars until you return the car. I’ve done this and it’s always been okay.
  • If you don’t prepay and they ask for a large deposit, don’t book. U-Save wanted between $900 and $1500.
  • Book your car, and then keep checking. Rates fluctuate daily.