Before You Leave: The Basics

My inbox is full of "tips" for travelers on their summer trips. Most are some combination of (1) obvious, pedestrian advice and (2) plugs for some product or system that you shouldn't leave without taking/using/whatever. Actually, figuring out what you need to do is neither complicated nor arcane—just a bit of common sense.

Home Security: Before leaving, make sure your residence doesn't shout, "Nobody's home!" Arrange for the post office to hold your mail and stop newspaper and other regular deliveries. Let neighbors know you'll be gone; maybe give one of them a key and ask them to inspect your place occasionally. Leave an itinerary with someone who can contact you in an emergency. If you live in an apartment or condo, let building management know. Don't leave a spare key anywhere that potential intruders might find it.

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Other Home Stuff: Arrange for someone to take care of anything that needs regular attention—plants to be watered, fish to be fed. If you have a DVR, set it to record favorite programs, making sure you have enough disc space. If you're going to be gone a long time, see if you can temporarily suspend any expensive ongoing services. Pay any bills likely to cause a problem if you wait. If you plan to rent a car, make a copy of some verification of your insurance coverage—I've never been asked to show it, but I know some travelers have.

Tech Stuff: Take what devices you need, but keep in mind that many hotel Wi-Fi services are not very secure. And unless you want to access your home computer remotely, turn it off completely before you leave.

Luggage: If you need some new luggage, I've always gone against the pitches I receive for expensive "lifetime" or other durable suitcases. Instead, I believe in using the lightest, cheapest soft-side luggage you can find and replacing it when a wheel breaks off or it gets tatty. I do recommend something on your bag—a strip of colored duct tape, a belt, a prominent tag—that will immediately distinguish it from the almost-identical bags travelers use these days.

You know to pack enough in your carry-on to get you through a day or two if an airline loses your main bag (along with cameras and tech stuff). But you also know enough to take a carry-on small enough to fit under your seat: You really do not want to have to gate-check it because the overhead bins are full.

Money: The basic rule of travel money is "plastic." That means a credit card for big-ticket expenses, an ATM card for cash. Before you leave, make sure you have enough available credit and cash to last your trip. And locate the local banks at your destination where you can avoid stiff withdrawal charges. If you're traveling with a companion, split up the important plastic between you so you won't lose all of it if your pocket is picked or your purse is snatched. Keep a record of your cards' contact numbers so you can cancel a stolen card and arrange for an immediate replacement. And notify your bank(s) about where you intend to travel: Some banks seem to want to know, others don't.

Communications: Presumably, you have some sort of wireless phone, which will probably work anywhere you travel in the United States. But check out your plan's specifics, and increase coverage if you need it.

Overseas Travel: Even though your plastic may entail conversion fees, you still lose less when you use a credit card than you lose when you exchange money. If you carry a smartphone, make sure to disable automatic downloads that could pile up huge international roaming charges without your knowledge. And if you plan for a lot of phone calls, get a foreign SIM card or a cheap foreign phone, or set up for VOIP.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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