I have a recurring nightmare: I'm leaving on a big trip, and I haven't finished packing. I need to do a load of laundry, water the plants, eat something and take a shower. I don't know where my binoculars are, and I forgot to get cash. The clock is ticking; my boss calls; the cab comes. I wake in tangled sheets.
It's surprising that I should be so haunted, because I'm an experienced traveler and by nature organized. I rarely forget anything important. Still, the more you travel, the easier it is to get blase.
So it benefits gadabouts as well as novices to think about what they must pack or do before leaving home on an extended trip.
I asked frequent travelers for their ideas, and I analyzed my own habits to develop this checklist. Instead of reiterating the obvious -- take your passport and tickets -- it's meant to help you organize yourself so things go smoothly that crucial day before or day of departure.
Timing is all: Book an evening flight so you have a whole day to get ready, and treat yourself gently. Unless you're 16 or made of steel, jet lag and the natural anxieties of travel will take a toll. When you embark on a long trip, the most important things to have with you are your equanimity and health.
I used to work up to the last minute and leave the office exhausted, knowing there were land mines on my desk someone would want me to dismantle just before my plane lifted off. Now I try to schedule my time so I have at least 24 uninterrupted hours to get ready for a big trip.
That means more than packing. It's about preparing your body for the mean jolts of long-distance travel. You need to sleep, exercise and eat right. On your day of departure, get a massage, take a yoga class, do whatever makes your body happy.
Just before I flew to Europe last month, I had an acupuncture treatment that seemed to make the trip easy and helped readjust my internal clock.
Hearth and home: Or, "Yipes, I left the iron on!" Tamar Lowell, who manages the Lonely Planet Web site, once went on a trip and left her front door open. "I was sitting on the plane," she says, "and it clicked that I didn't remember closing it." Her friendly mail carrier came to the rescue. But who hasn't left for the airport and suddenly wondered whether the coffeemaker or oven is still on?
Don't forget to unplug appliances. Make sure the washing machine water hose is in good order or, better still, disconnected at the faucet. Annette Zientek, president of the Internet travel gear store Christine columbus.com, intervened at the home of a vacationing neighbor where a burst washing machine hose inundated the house with so much water that, she says, "It was as if someone had let the floodgate open on Hoover Dam."
You also should stop newspapers, give a trusted neighbor a key in case of emergencies, take Woofy to the kennel, put your lights and radio on a timer, and have someone water the plants and tend the lawn.
Some things are less obvious, though: Turn the water heater to low. (Some have a "vacation" setting.) Have someone run the dishwasher if you're going to be away a long time; otherwise the seal may dry out, resulting in a leak. Clean out the refrigerator so rotten hamburger isn't the first thing you smell when you get home.
Born to shop: Buy all the things you need well before it becomes necessary to pack. We're talking about travel-size toothpaste and talc; antidepressants, first aid for blisters, female sanitary items; adapters, transformers and chargers; Swiss Army knives, sink stoppers, wine openers.
Louanne Kalvinskas, co-owner of Distant Lands, a travel book and gear store in Pasadena, says people come running to the shop just before they leave on a trip for locks, straps, security pouches and city maps. Sharon Wingler, a longtime Delta flight attendant and creator of Travel AloneAndLoveIt.com, has a laminated packing list she leaves in her ever-ready suitcase, though she doesn't obsess about forgetting things because she can usually buy what she needs on the road. "Better to need it and not have it than to have it and not need it," Wingler says.
Mail, e-mail and machines: Decide whether you want to leave your answering machine on, change the message or arrange to have calls forwarded because message "mailboxes" sometimes fill up quickly. I've perfected the art of the discouraging message at work, which tells people how long I'll be gone and that I'll try to get back to them as soon as I can, leaving open the possibility that it won't be before my return.
It's a good idea to use an automatic out-of-office response for your e-mail so people with pressing business know you aren't around.