Three weeks is a long time to be on the road. Preparations need to be made for the trip, but they also need to be made to put the house in cryogenic stasis while we’re away. It really isn’t as simple as slamming the door and hoping it latches on the way out. The more we travel, the better we get at it, and the closer it becomes to habit. We still make mistakes. I carefully padlocked the garage, locked the door handle and the deadbolt on the laundry room, shut and locked all the windows, locked the back door, locked and dead-bolted the front door… and left the dog door wide open. Any human under 200 pounds and any animal smaller than a boar would have had no trouble slipping inside, invisible to public gaze.
Fortunately, we don’t have anything worth stealing. Even the fridge was empty.
Household chores are my way of dealing with the frenetic energy I generate while planning a trip. I get too restless to concentrate on much else. I’ll read and re-read the same paragraph over and over while my mind churns over details. Bustling around doing minor, System One tasks helps to free my concentration for all the System Two mental bandwidth when I really need it.
do all the laundry wash the dishes wash the pet bedding wash the shower curtain clean the bathroom make a shopping list for when we get back hem my new travel pants rearrange the linen closet donate a bag to Goodwill turn in the library books dust the bookshelves put clean sheets on the bed put out fresh towels mop the floors make soup stock try to cook every single thing in the fridge freeze dinner for the night we get back plant the amaryllis bulb haul the waste bins to the curb refill the bottles in my shower kit pack the bags sort the mail scrub the sink UHOH! On the morning of the trip, the piece of cabinetry under the kitchen sink comes unglued, falls off, and nearly hits me as I walk by. It’s always something. Now, no matter what I do, THE HOUSE WILL NOT BE PERFECT while we’re gone.
I like to have this image of our place from my final walk-through. I can visualize it the way I saw it last. Nothing on any of the countertops, nothing on the bed, nothing on the floor. Not only are there no scary pools of organic gloop making compost tea in my refrigerator crispers, no mildewing towels spreading spores in my hamper, but there are also no important documents or keys lying forgotten on a table. This habit of the perimeter check is a keystone in our travel prep. A hotel room perimeter check can be done in 60 seconds; the house and yard can be done in 5 minutes. A campsite can be done almost instantly, because once you’ve folded and packed the tent with the car keys still inside, you learn to double check and shake it first. Anything on the ground that isn’t a leaf should already have gone in the backpacks.
I forgot to do the full hotel room perimeter check earlier this year. It’s no excuse, but I had started using an eye medication the night before, and I wasn’t strong on visuals. I left an entire change of clothes in a drawer. I like using the bottom dresser drawer as a dirty clothes hamper. I didn’t realize I was missing all these things until weeks later, when I didn’t have two things I had planned to bring on our trip. I emailed the hotel and they responded that they had mailed the box of clothes to our address and billed it to the credit card on file. (Hilton FTW!) This was great, except that we were already in Europe, and I had to track the package and put a hold on it from my phone over campsite wifi. One dumb mistake or lapse in attention can have a way of rippling outward, causing additional hassle, affecting not just me but other people as well.
There are a lot of bureaucratic matters that need to be handled before an international trip. They’re not negotiable. Nobody cares. If you show up without your passport, you’re not going. If you don’t have the necessary visa, you’re not getting in. If you don’t have your wallet, you’re not buying anything. If you miss a flight after checking your bags, I’ll tell you what happens. They delay the flight just long enough to find your bags in the hold and remove them, and everyone on board does one massive, synchronized eye roll. (Delays usually aren’t someone’s fault; they’re a result of the ripple effect of delays on other flights, usually due to weather). It’s debatable what to pack, or how well to organize the house; it is not debatable whether to get vaccinated, get the visa, follow security regulations, or board on time. Their rules are not our rules, they are THE rules.
What you learn from hanging around more experienced travelers is that frequent travel scrapes off all the sequins and glitter. No, you don’t have time for one last thing; no, you don’t have room for one more item; no, you’re not going to need that.
Here is a list of bureaucratic stuff we had to do before our trip:
Book plane tickets
Confirm that we didn’t need a visa or additional vaccinations
Confirm that our passports would still be valid
Check customs regulations for the countries we'd be visiting
Arrange to board our pets and get the dog a bath the day before our return
Register with the State Department (optional)
Get travel insurance (optional, but wise)
Notify our banks where and when we'd be traveling
Get an international data plan (the AT&T passport) for our phones
Put a hold on our mail
Put a hold on our CSA farm box delivery
Arrange to have my husband’s work laptop and business clothes shipped home before the backpacking part of the trip
Pack some small bills and coins in euros from last business trip
Renew our renter’s insurance (coincidence)
Activate our new debit cards (coincidence); they would have arrived after our departure if I hadn’t elected to delay my ticket by a few days
Not realize the ripple effect of the debit card expiration date hitting all our auto-payments
Deal with a steady stream of email relating to our auto-payments not going through for the entire trip
Watch an ATM eat our old debit card and then give an error message in Catalan, only days into the trip
Travel is one of the best supporting arguments for both members of a couple to have separate bank accounts. The best backup plan would be to travel with debit cards from two different banks and credit cards from at least two different issuers, each with its own independent expiration date. This is how it would happen if family members, colleagues, friends, or strangers traveled together. Married or committed partners have the advantage that when it’s time to collect any debts, you know where they live.
We travel frequently, so often that we don’t even really count weekend trips out of town. I don’t even really count traveling out of state unless it was a different time zone. It isn’t “travel” unless you leave the continent. What this means is that we always have a general sense of the state of our luggage. We have freshly replenished shower kits. We have a place to board our animals. (We found out the hard way that this can’t be done on a whim, not with exotics. There are usually physical exam requirements first. Space isn’t always available). We have a housekeeping routine. We have designated travel outfits for different seasons. We break in our boots and shoes. All the backpacking stuff is in one labeled bin. We have routine places we tend to stop on road trips, where we know the menu and the hours of operation.
It’s a sad irony that living like freewheeling gypsy wanderers is easier when you have the infrastructure of an engineer and a professional organizer.
Everything we do in advance is a gift to Vacation Self. What we’re doing is front-loading a lot of hassle and effort to buy ourselves larger chunks of High Quality Leisure Time. We’re clearing System Two tasks so our Future Selves can relax and play. On the way home, we had a status meeting and identified 83 separate line items of things we could improve for our next trip. Many of them involved gear to buy, invent, replace, or stop bringing. This gives us something to do in the stretches of home life when nothing interesting is going on.
We are indeed already planning our next trip. It adds to the anticipation. It gives us a shared goal to discuss and visualize. It gives us time to prevent hassles. Done right, it saves us from wandering around in the rain when all the restaurants are closed, or finding out the tour we had planned is not available on the only day we had scheduled. One day, we’ll crush it. We’ll wander seamlessly between one fantastic dream destination and another, whirling along like we’re living in our own personal musical. Until then, it’s back to the drawing board, editing and revising.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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