Mar 28, 2011

My tips for easy vacations

Spring break is over, and now there's 60-some days until summer vacations begin in earnest.   For those of you who --like us--don't always stay in condos or cabins, I hope this information is helpful if you're planning a summer or fall trip.  I'll probably be printing it out as a checklist when I start planning our fall break.

After a few years of renting beach homes and mountain cabins instead of hotel rooms, I think we're finally getting the hang of vacationing in a home-away-from-home. I love having the extra space to sprawl out, and the ability to prepare some of our meals, which is better for our waist line and bottom line, versus eating out every meal.

With each trip, I realize (too late) there are some key things that can really add to our comfort and convenience.   Here's my list of most important hints and tips I wish I had known from the very first trip to the beach:

1. Plan your meals. You probably won't eat out every meal, so it's helpful to decide ahead of time how many breakfasts, lunches and dinners you will eat in and plan something for each meal.  It doesn't matter if you precisely determine each day's menu, just jot down enough meal ideas to cover all your bases.  I print out a flexible menu and put it in a plastic protective sleeve to lay somewhere in the kitchen (note to self: a refrigerator magnet would be a good thing to bring along.) Not only does it help everyone see what they can choose from, it helps the cook remember what to fix with what!

The menu also helps me create a grocery list, which I divide into things to bring and things to buy when we arrive.  (It makes that first-day grocery run MUCH faster and cheaper to have a list of everything we need for the stay.)

2. Bring or buy?  I've learned that just like packing my clothes and personal items, some items are worth bringing, others are not. My SUV does not have huge storage capacity, especially once Mr. Official's golf clubs are loaded and our bags are packed in.

For that reason, I'm pretty judicious about what I tote along for the kitchen, versus what I will pick up when we get to our destination.  But I've found that bringing the following items saves at least $100 on our weekly bill, and makes the vacation a lot more pleasant for everyone. If things go according to plan, I usually bring back far less than I took.  Here's my baker's dozen of must-takes that I fit into two insulated grocery bags (also a good thing to have along):
  • Seasonings.  After lugging home the umpteenth pair of S&P shakers, I started leaving them behind, usually along with other abandoned pairs left by former occupants.  I now bring small jars of coarse pepper and Kosher or sea salt, which we prefer anyway.  Depending on the menu, I also pre-measure spices and seasonings. (For example, this garlic lime recipe makes an easy dinner, especially if I premix the spices and put them in a small bag.)
  • Oil.  A half-cup of olive oil in a small container makes baked potato skins crispy and yummy, seasons pans for sauteing, etc.  A small container of canola or vegetable oil is good for baked sweets (e.g., brownies, cookies and breakfast muffins and coffee cakes.)
  • Ziplock quart and gallon bags and aluminum foil.  They take up very little space and are handier than a pocket on a shirt for marinating stuff, storing leftovers and having a foil-lined pan makes cleanup a breeze.
  • Pasta.  Whether for a salad or side dish, I can tuck in a small box and know it's fresher and cheaper than what I can buy locally.
  • Sugar. White and brown.  Easy to carry a small amount in heavy-duty bags or containers, and take just enough for sweet tea, bacon seasoning, etc.
  • Mixes. Muffin, brownie and cookie mixes are easier to transport than refrigerated dough, way cheaper (and tastier) than packaged sweets, and a cinch to mix up for breakfasts and desserts or snacks.  Along with a 3-pack of microwave popcorn and we've got nighttime snackage for the week.
  • Tea bags, coffee and filters.  Depending on how many are in our group, 1-2 tea bags per dinner are usually sufficient.  Coffee and filters are usually much cheaper to buy and take than to pick up locally.  (Extra filters are also good for disposable "bowls" for popcorn, chips, etc.)
  • Silicon.  As in hot pads and muffin cups.  Six muffin cups nest together and take up almost no room (not every condo has a muffin tin, I've discovered.)  Most condos only provide only one hot pad, but a couple silicon hot pads take up little room and protect both fingers and counters.
  • Lighter and a few votive or citronella candles.  Most of our vacations are to warm-weather destinations and we have a screened porch or balcony with dining table and chairs.  Sunset dinners are much nicer if you have a candle on the table.   Charcoal (and even some gas) grills require a lighter.  I don't know how many cheap (but expensive) lighters I've bought and carried home over the years, but it's a bunch.  Yes, we eventually use them up, but why keep buying them when you have a handful at home?
  • Flashlight and batteries (from AAA to D) will make beachcombing or just walking in a dark place a little easier.  Buying batteries in a local store is not only expensive, but--depending on how far off the beaten path you are--their batteries could be older than your kids.  And be sure to tuck in converters and chargers for every electronic device: cell phones, cameras, e-readers and computers.
  • Soap.  Dish, dishwasher and laundry all require detergent or soap.  Unless you don't cook (much or at all) during your stay and you do only one load of clothes, the courtesy packages are not near enough for a full week of clean-ups.  A few tablets of detergent and a small container of my favorite dish soap makes these chores much easier. (And with my family's eczema, using our usual fragrance-free laundry detergent can prevent a sudden outbreak.)
  • Kitchen trash bags.  Condos never provide enough, and they take up very little room to tuck in with your bring-alongs.  Count on at least one per day for every 6 people.
  • Sanitizer.  A can of Lysol, Oust, Neutra-Air or Febreeze can eliminate any musty odors on arrival and keeps things much more pleasant during the week.   Just sayin'.
3. First aid kit, plus.  As most moms know, it pays to bring plenty of bandages, Neosporin, over-the-counter pain relievers and allergy meds along.  Anti-nausea/diarrhea and a few doses of severe cold meds can be a lifesaver.  Having a child prone to carsickness, I keep a tube of Dramamine chewables in my car at all times, but if you don't - let's just say it can come in handy.  Other items we usually wind up buying at a local drugstore (read;  I really should bring them along):  feminine products, Q-tips, and a bottle of after-sun lotion (stick it in the fridge.)

4. Get the deals the locals get.  This year we used Groupon and LivingSocial to check out local deals for several weeks before heading out.  (Love them at home, they work great for most of the areas we travel to as well and provide better deals than the coupon books you can pick up locally.)  It can be worth it to sign up for at least one of the local grocery store loyalty cards, too - I carry one I use once or twice a year when we're in the mountains, and it saves a big chunk of our grocery bill when I do.

Happy vacationing!