Monday, January 18, 2010

Organized Air Travel in 2010

Tip of the Week, January 10, 2010

With the recent chaos of the 2009 holiday travel season and the continuing chaos around attempts at ramping up airport security and flight safety, it's understandable that many people are tempted to stay home in 2010. But while the new rules and regulations for air travel can seem daunting at first, they don't need to prevent you from hitting the skies this year.

To encourage you to get out and see the world with more confidence--and potentially less time spent in security lines--here's an overview of what to know before you go, along with time-honored tips for staying organized and in control when you fly.

What's New with Security?
In the wake of the attempted bombing of an airplane arriving at the Detroit airport on December 25, there was a scramble by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and related agencies around the world to put in place more restrictive security measures. Over the past few weeks, those measures have been clarified significantly. Here are the basics:
  • There have been no changes for flights within the United States. If you're traveling domestically, your experience at the security checkpoint will be much like it has been for the past year, and you will still be able to carry on one small piece of luggage and one personal item (purse, briefcase, laptop bag, etc.).
  • The same holds for international flights leaving the U.S. Though it's always wise to leave more time to get through security when traveling internationally (including to Canada and Mexico), you will still be permitted the same number of carry-ons, and shouldn't notice much different about security procedures.
  • If you're traveling to the U.S. from another country, be prepared for longer security lines, new screening measures, and stricter limits on carry-ons. In some cases you'll be limited to one personal item only, and no additional carry-on luggage. United Airlines' website has a good overview of the new security measures for inbound international flights.
  • Finally, if you're traveling to the U.S. from or after having traveled to a country on the TSA's list of "state sponsors of terrorism" or "countries of interest" (see the TSA's website for a list), expect to spend more time at the airport due to enhanced security measures.
Secure Flight Program
Another recent change to the security process at airports is the TSA's Secure Flight program, which is designed to prevent cases of mistaken identity for travelers whose names are similar to or the same as those of people on the Administration's watch list. Secure Flight requires that the name on your boarding pass exactly match the name on the ID you use at security (e.g., Robert K. Smith rather than Bob Smith), and also that you register your full name, date or birth, and gender with the airline you're flying.

If you regularly travel with certain airlines and have frequent flier and/or website accounts with them, check to see if they offer the ability to save Secure Flight info to your user profile so you won't have to enter this information anew each time you book travel with them.

Common-Sense, Stay-Sane Tips
For all the changes happening in air travel security, a few basic common-sense tips still apply.
  • Don't overpack. Now more than ever, bulging suitcases and crammed carry-ons are likely to cause headaches, delays, and possibly extra charges. Take the time to get organized before you pack and be extra selective about what you bring.
  • Pack and dress smart. No matter where you go through security, you'll still need to remove your shoes and jacket and screen liquids and laptops separately; you may also be subject to secondary inspection, which involves a security officer taking a closer look at your carry-ons. Wearing shoes that are easy to get on and off, limiting bulky layers (like hooded sweatshirts), and packing small items together in cases or mini bags will make for a less stressful trip through security.
  • Arrive early but not too early. It's always smart to get to the airport well ahead of your flight (at least 90 minutes for domestic flights and 2 hours for international), but showing up many hours ahead of time--as many travelers have been doing lately--can actually cause delays, not to mention many hours of boredom at the airport.
  • Do as much as possible online. In most cases, you can check in for your flight online (and print your boarding pass) up to 24 hours ahead of time. Many airlines will also let you pay for checked bags online and then drop them off at designated counters once you reach the airport. In both cases, you'll save yourself the time and stress of standing in miles-long check-in lines.
Traveling this year might take a bit more planning, preparation, and fortitude, but it doesn't have to be painful--and definitely shouldn't be avoided! Take the time to get informed before you take to the skies for a smoother, more organized, more enjoyable trip.

Monday, January 11, 2010

3 Steps to More Achievable Resolutions

Tip of the Week, January 3, 2010

The turn of year encourages many of us to make resolutions, those big, grandiose goals meant to improve our lives and make the year ahead the best one yet. Too often, though, resolutions are too difficult to stick with, so we end up abandoning them long before the year is through. This year, why not try something new? Take one or two big resolutions and break them down into manageable, achievable, step-by-step goals that you renew each month. Here's how to get started.

Step 1: Define Your Goal
To begin, think about what you'd like your final goal to be--in other words, why are you making this resolution in the first place? For example, if you've resolved to make this the year in which you finally get and stay organized, your goal might be to spend less time dealing with clutter and more time doing the things you actually enjoy, or it might be to decrease the stress of living with piles of stuff around you all the time.

Keeping your goals in mind as well as your resolutions will help you focus not only on the work you need to do to achieve your resolutions, but also on how you'll benefit in the end. Focusing on goals also allows you to see and celebrate the small victories along the way.

Step 2: Make a Realistic Resolution
The next step is to make a realistic and achievable resolution. Aiming for nearly impossible feats might seem like a good way to motivate yourself, but far too often it just sets you up for failure. Instead, choose an overall resolution, and then add details to it to make it achievable for where you are in life right now.

For example, if you've been living with a severely cluttered house for years, resolving to have a home that looks like it's come from the pages of Real Simple may not be a realistic aim. Instead, you might resolve to get the house cleared enough so that you can have people over, can find the things you need, and can spend time at home without feeling stressed or anxious. Create a resolution that feels motivating without being overwhelming and you'll be far more likely to stick with it.

Step 3: Go Month by Month
Many New Year's resolutions fall by the wayside a few months after they're made because they seem too big, or because the goal that seemed so promising at the beginning of January starts to look awfully different at the beginning of March. This year, try breaking your resolution down into monthly chunks; you'll have a different challenge to look forward to every month, and it'll be easier to stick with your goals.

If, for example, you've resolved to get your home office under control once and for all, you might start this month by resolving to change the way you deal with new mail that comes in. In February, once you have a good mail-processing system in place, your goal for the month might be to sort through the papers that have accumulated on your desk, and to keep your desktop clear. In March, start sorting through papers you've stored elsewhere--and on it goes throughout the year, with each month building on the progress you made the month before.

One of the best things about monthly resolutions is that they let you see and celebrate the progress you've made, which is a crucial part of sticking with any change. Be sure to give yourself a big pat on the back for each milestone you achieve throughout the year.

Whatever your resolution, using the three steps above can make it easier to achieve. This year, set yourself up for success by focusing on your goals, making realistic resolutions, and celebrating your monthly achievements. With some effort and dedication, you may just find that your resolutions really stick.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Last Minute, Clutter-Free Gift Ideas

Tip of the Week, late December 2009

Come mid-December, if you're facing the prospect of having to do more shopping to find presents for everyone on your list, it can be tempting to give in to the last-minute gift ideas stores and catalogs suggest. (Among the recommendations I've seen in the past week: colorful hot water bottles, moose-head slippers, and very expensive hand-beaded Christmas tree ornaments.) The risk of such gifts, of course, is that they'll wind up as clutter in the recipient's home--not to mention that they can break your holiday shopping budget.

The good news is that with very little effort, you can find last-minute holiday gifts that don't require a trip to the mall or extravagant spending and that won't wind up in the back of someone's hall closet. Here are five easy-to-customize, easy-to-give presents for everyone on your list.

#1: Experiences
I'm willing to bet that most people would much rather receive the gift of an experience than another knick-knack. Experiences tend to be far more memorable than things, are very easy to customize, and, of course, take up no space. Furthermore, they can be inexpensive (or free!).

To create an experience gift, think about what your recipient enjoys and would like to do more of. For example, a foodie might enjoy dinner at a popular new restaurant, a cooking class, or a behind-the-scenes tour at a winery. New parents might appreciate a few hours of babysitting and a pair of movie tickets for an evening out sans kid. For a traveler? A personalized, guided tour of your town or city, including lunch or coffee at one of your favorite spots.

#2: Your Talents
It's true: I once gave my mother the gift of my time and organizing skill to overhaul her filing system. Sure, it wasn't the most glamorous present ever, and didn't fit neatly under the tree, but it made her files easier to use not only after Christmas but throughout the year.

Sharing your talents with those on your gift list can be a great way of giving presents that are meaningful, useful, and bound to make the recipients' lives easier and more enjoyable. Have a knack for cooking? Give a busy family a gift certificate for a week's worth of meals you'll prepare and freeze for them, allowing them to enjoy home-cooked dinners in the midst of a chaotic schedule. Handy with home repairs? Offer a friend a few hours of fix-it time to tackle whatever small jobs he's been putting off for months. Have an eye for style? Give someone the gift of your time as a wardrobe consultant and personal shopper.

#3: Subscriptions
One of my favorite gifts last Christmas was a subscription to Netflix, which gave me access to an endless stream of DVD rentals. GameFly offers a similar service for video games, allowing game aficionados to rent titles for as long as they'd like and then send them back when they're done. The music lovers on your list might enjoy a subscription to eMusic, which offers monthly downloads of MP3 from an extensive catalog. Google "food of the month clubs" to find near-endless options for monthly "subscriptions" to mail-order clubs offering beer, cheese, wine, hot sauce, coffee, cookies, and hundreds of other foods.

#4: Gift Cards
Gift cards have gotten a bad rap as being unimaginative, uninspired choices. Yes, it's true that gift cards can go very, very wrong: when they were in their mid-20s, for example, my cousins were baffled to receive cards for a clothing store aimed at significantly older women. But for people on your list who are hard to shop for or who you know would enjoy picking out something on their own, gift cards can be a great clutter-free alternative to trying to find the perfect thing.

If you do go the gift card route, do a bit of homework beforehand. Live in a different region from your recipient? Check online to be sure the store, movie theater, or restaurant chain for which you're buying a gift card exists in her area. Not entirely sure of your giftee's interests or likes? Go broad: a certificate from Amazon, for example, is something most people will be able to use, no matter what they enjoy.

If you want to be able to wrap up and present a gift card, buy an actual card. (Most retailers, whether online or not, offer physical certificates or cards.) Want to go the truly clutter-free, uber last-minute route? Look for an online retailer that offers electronic certificates, which can be e-mailed directly to your recipient.

#5: Charitable Donations
Finally, if their are folks on your list who are committed to a better world and enjoy donating to charity, consider giving them the gift of a contribution in their name. If you know the name of a charity your recipient feels strongly about, you can donate directly to it. Not sure which nonprofit your giftee would choose? Give a certificate to JustGive, a website that allows recipients to find and donate to the charities that appeal to them.

Charitable gifts are ideal for people you know well and know would appreciate being able to share the wealth. As a bonus, such gifts may be tax-deductible for you--and, of course, they provide much-needed boosts to nonprofits working to make lasting change throughout the year.

Put these five ideas to use to finish your holiday shopping with as little stress, clutter, and overspending as possible--and nary a colored hot water bottle in sight!