Be ready to leave in a hurry
Between the thrill of anticipation and the joy of setting off comes one of the most dreaded parts of any trip: packing. Is the bag too heavy? Will it fit in the carry-on sizer? Do all the liquids fit into that little plastic bag? Am I forgetting anything? Countless apps attempt to address the latter question, providing digital packing lists you can tick off as you go. I want things to be even simpler. My goal: To have my suitcase ready to go with as many essentials as possible at all times. It's amazing how much easier it is to say "yes" to a last-minute weekend trip when all you have to worry about is tossing in some clothes. I've been working on this for the past year, and I want to nail it in 2016. (Just this weekend I had to buy a bathing suit after I unexpectedly ended up at a hotel with an awesome outdoor pool.) So what do I keep in there? Items include emergency flat shoes, swimsuit (lesson learned), laundry bag, clutch, passport holder with travel documents, luggage scale and measuring tape, power cords, portable humidifier, hairbrush, makeup set and my toiletry kit (which is a whole list in and of itself). High maintenance? Perhaps. But it's a selection built from experience. Feel free to make your list shorter.
Review points and cards
I dutifully hand over my Air Miles card every time I'm asked, but I realized recently it had been at least a year since I checked my balance. Turns out I have enough points for a short-haul flight. I can finally cross Delaware off my list! Seriously, though, you may be sitting on an all-expenses-paid vacation and not even know it. Yes, loyalty programs can be a hassle – and even a "free" flight often requires you to shell out some money – but think of those points as dollars at your disposal. You wouldn't throw out $1,000 in loonies just because they were taking up too much space. I've easily redeemed more than $10,000 in free travel from my primary points credit card, but it's time I get a handle on what other rewards I could be cashing in. It's also a good idea to see whether any points are set to expire, and to remind yourself of what perks you're entitled to as well: Many travel cards offer free upgrades, checked bags, insurance and more. Don't miss out.
Check my documents
Are your travel documents up-to-date and in good shape? In May, an Ontario couple saw their Italian vacation plans quashed because of a soon-to-expire passport (Italy requires it be valid for three months beyond the departure date). In September, Candice Wright of Toronto was denied a trip to Cuba because of water damage to her document. These are easy problems to avoid. My passport is good for 10 years, but I haven't done anything about the e-mail reminding me my Nexus card is about to expire. Time to get on that. One more to-do for me: Make sure a relative or friend has a photocopy of my ID in case it goes missing when I'm out of the country. If you trust the cloud, keep a pic online so you can access it from anywhere.
Two summers ago, I set off on a solo backpacking trip around Europe – in my 30s. I stayed in hostels. I ate alone in fancy restaurants. I napped in public parks. In short: I had a kick-ass time. I love travelling with others, but that trip reminded me how important it is to sometimes go it alone. The freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want is exhilarating. Sure, I screwed up along the way (my backpack was stolen, I took the wrong train to Venice) and had some uncomfortable moments (Belgian men are very handsy) but figured things out and survived. That's a serious self-confidence boost. My aim is for at least one trip on my own this year. If you've never done it – or haven't for some time – join me (so to speak).
Explore my backyard
When was the last time you visited the province(s) next door? Or explored your own province? The low dollar is the perfect excuse to check out all those places you send visitors. Last month, a friend treated me to a girls' weekend at Ste. Anne's Spa in Grafton, Ont. For some reason, I always assumed it was at least three hours away from Toronto. It's not. It's a little more than an hour. And you can get there by train. We spent 48 hours lounging around in robes, eating biscotti and relaxing in hot tubs. Needless to say, I regret not going sooner. I intend to discover what other gems I'm missing out on.
Budget for a treat
In general, I'm a thrifty traveller. I'd rather see more places on the cheap – taking public transit, staying in "posh" hostels, grabbing street food for lunch – than take one or two luxury vacations a year. Savings aside, I also find such tactics help me get a more realistic take on a destination. But recently, I've come to appreciate a little indulgence. Maybe it's getting older. Maybe it's the reality that after paying $89 for a "room" in Manhattan (a closet-sized cabin with a lattice-work ceiling in a renovated flop house) I can afford to order a fancy-pants $16 cocktail. And while I've always shunned room service, the perfectly decadent bacon and eggs I enjoyed on my balcony at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando – one of the top five breakfasts of my life – has me determined to allocate some of my budget each trip to a totally unnecessary delight.
Be mindful of where my money is going
Tourism has the power to change lives. According to the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency, tourism dollars make up 5 per cent of global GDP, are responsible for 235 million jobs (one in 12 worldwide) and, in many developing countries, are a main economic driver. "If tourism is managed with a strong focus on poverty alleviation," reads one report, "it can directly benefit the poorer groups." This is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. By choosing locally owned hotels over foreign chains, hiring guides or taking a chance on an up-and-coming destination, I can help make a difference.
Stop using stupid buzzwords
I resolve to never use the following words again, in conversation or in Globe Travel: "authentic," "like a local" and "artisan."
Quit comparing my travel with others
Give your notice, sell your home, see the world. It's a traveller's dream, right? To be able to get to know a city in-depth, to soak in every nuance, to explore every corner. Some travel bloggers would have you believe that to do anything else is worthless. "Three days in Berlin?" they say. "What's the point?" Well, they can shove it. Travel is travel and with few exceptions, it's always better than staying at home. A week in Beijing didn't make me an expert on Chinese culture, but I now know what it's like to live with in-your-face censorship and suffocating smog. Just because a person is not willing to drop everything does not make his or her travel experiences any less valid.
Get some Instagram inspiration
The best way to travel vicariously when stuck at your desk? Instagram. I love filling my lunch break with lush photos of boldly coloured buildings in Copenhagen, narwhals in Northern Canada, otherworldly landscapes in Iceland and frosty forests in Japan. Sometimes envy creeps in, but I try to see it all as motivation to start saving for my next adventure. If you're new to the photo-sharing network, following National Geographic is a great place to start (handle: natgeo). Some of my other favourites include calsnape, gerdludwig and felecool, plus Canadians legalnomads, brendanvanson, paulnicklen and The Globe and Mail's johnlehmann. My goal this year is to follow at least one new photographer a week.