spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

Using the Alaska Airlines Low Price Guarantee

The eternal question: buy air tickets right away when you see an acceptable price, or wait to see if the price comes down?  Unless you have elite status with an airline, and can therefore eliminate the Change Fee, it’s generally not worth the financial hit to make a change to your non-refundable reservation to take advantage of a price drop.

Cancelling/rebooking a flight due to a price change usually falls into the “change” category.  Here is a handy chart outlining most major airline fees, as well as information on how/when to cancel or change your reservation.  Southwest doesn’t have any change fees, but they don’t fly to Hawaii so that benefit is of limited use to us.  I agree wholeheartedly with this blogger’s approach to leaving cancellations until pretty close to the departure date (tip #3).  If the carrier changes the flight schedule by ~5 hours or more (for American; other airlines use anything from 3-8 hours as the criteria), you can usually request a different route to your destination or cancel your ticket altogether without cancellation fees (even for a nonrefundable ticket) because the airline itself changed the schedule by an unacceptable amount.  You generally want to call them to see your options- be aware that they may charge a phone fee if you make changes, something nominal like $25.  Still better than $200!

On that topic, Alaska Airlines has a good benefit that I took advantage of last week.  They advertise a Low Price Guarantee.  This means that you can get a refund of the difference if you find a lower fare for your exact itinerary (including flight #s).  You can find a lower fare on a competitor’s site within 24 hrs of booking on alaskaair.com to claim a refund, or you can find a lower fare on alaskaair.com before your travel date to claim a credit into your “Wallet.”  Make sure your flights qualify, there are some restrictions (notably, it’s valid only for flights on Alaska metal and some little regional services they use).  But if your reservation fits the specifics, it’s pretty easy to go through the process using their online form.  To be clear, you can’t use this process to change your flights dates/times, only to take advantage of a price drop with your same itinerary. Here is my original receipt:



And here is my new receipt after submitting the claim:

and After!

and After!

As you can see, I was actually charged $0.45 for my Companion Traveler’s tax difference.  They used my credit card on file…I hope my credit score is OK after that 45-cent hit 🙂  More importantly, I got a credit of $84.99 into my online Wallet to use on any future Alaska flight.  I must use the funds to book travel by late January 2016; actual travel can take place whenever.

Finally, a note about change fees in general.  Many complain about having change fees at all, citing Southwest as an example.  This airline apparently can absorb the “extra administrative costs” (rolling my eyes, it’s an hourly worker clicking a few thing into a computer) incurred by having a passenger change their itinerary, flight dates, etc, while other major airlines pass the cost along to the customer.  Non-change-farers actually want the airline to track the price and refund them automatically as the ticket prices drop.  To them I say, well, you wouldn’t want to continually be charged more if the ticket price goes up, do you?  Slippery slope, that.

Others protest that having some change fee is fair, but the actual cost is outrageous (I agree, $200 is not insignificant to a travel budget).  I fall into this second camp.  Life happens, and plans sometimes need to change.  If the airlines want to foster some goodwill with a traveler and their family in order to keep them as a customer, they’d bring these costs down.  Charging a flat $200 to change a $180 fare or $1800 fare is madness.  I’d love to see a sliding scale change fee structure, based on a percentage of the base fare cost.  Anyone? Bueller?

BTW, totally thinking of using up my flight credit on a family trip to……

Never been, always wanted to.  Nonstop flights, woo!

Never been, always wanted to. Nonstop flights, woo!


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Disney Pre-trip Report: food, glorious food

As we approach the 180-day mark to our Disney trip, I’m madly revising and updating my park itinerary. Why is 180 days out important? Because Disney has decided that yes, you can decide 6 months ahead of time where and when you will want to eat while on vacation. This is not mandatory- you don’t have to make Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) so far ahead, but since you can, I do.

This little guy always makes me laugh.

This little guy always makes me laugh.

But this doesn’t involve simply sketching out a general plan for each park day, and leisurely deciding when you might want to stop for food.  No- I’m afraid that you have to put some real work into this ADR thing.  Also, you need to know that Advanced Dining Reservations are not true reservations- an empty table is not waiting for you at your ADR time.  ADR means that you will be seated next, when a table appropriate for your party opens up.  There are NO tables reserved for walk-up guests at all, so unless you feel like taking a chance and having to wait until all park guests with ADRs have been seated….make an ADR.  It’s easy, on the WDW website, or through the My Disney Experience app.  You must have an account to make ADRs, so get on it tout de suite if you have a trip coming up.  Let our food journey begin!

Served with a side of MAGIC.  And Disney bacon, of course.

Served with a side of MAGIC. And Disney bacon, of course.

  1. First, we decide how many park days we’re going to have during our trip.  This time, we’re getting 6-day Park Hopper tickets (meaning we are not limited to 1 Park per day, thank goodness, since there are 4 magical Parks at WDW).  So we have 6 days when we can eat some meals in the Parks, a few times when we eat in the Art of Animation food court, at other Disney resort hotels, and at Downtown Disney (in the process of being renamed Disney Springs), plus a day when we will have most of our meals at Universal Islands of Adventure Park/CityWalk (we’ll be strictly Quick Service over there).
  2. Next, we check out the list of Table Service (sit-down, “TS”) restaurants in each Park or Resort hotel.  You don’t need ADRs for Quick Service (walk-up) places, the kind that serve mostly fast food options.  We start making a list of what sounds good.  For this part, while I love the Internet, I much prefer to have a written list that I can refer to.  The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2015 and PassPorter’s Walt Disney World 2015 are perfect for this kind of thing.  The restaurant listings are organized by Park/Resort, and include a description of the kind of food you might expect, plus ratings.  Note: the PassPorter 2015 has not started shipping their pre-orders yet, but when you buy the physical Guide from the PassPorter website, you receive the entire Guide contents as an updateable/savable PDF file at the time of purchase.
  3. Now, narrow down the list.  I always have too many meals in relation to available vacation days, and it’s painful to cut any of them out, but we must be realistic.  Too many TS meals cuts down on Park time and sure puts a dent in the wallet.  This is a great time to make a MUST-DO list (for me, that means a favorite restaurant that I absolutely can’t skip, read: Boma), and MUST-TRY list (usually the hottest new place, hello Be Our Guest!), and an assortment of MAYBEs.
  4. You sort your restaurants, and it’s time to research menus.  I love perusing the Disney Food Blog and AllEars for full menus, and the previously mentioned guidebooks for info on the restaurant opening/closing times and average cost per entrée.  This might also be when you wade into the DISboards Disney Restaurants section- warning: this may be an overwhelming amount of information, as the forum members really get into the minutiae of Disney food and debate the merits of each meal, restaurant, snack, and adult beverage at the World.  There are even Dining Reports, complete with pictures of each and every morsel consumed.
  5. OK, we rescued you from the rabbit hole that is Disney Dining comparisons.  You are left with your A-Team of restaurants, which includes a nice mix of Park restaurants, Resort eateries, and times when you will be in a rush and grab yourself a Kid’s Breakfast Platter from the food court (what?  it’s almost the same amount of food as the adult plate, and usually $2 less.  You are perfectly entitled to the cash and calorie savings in a food court situation).
  6. It’s time for a big decision.  Disney Dining Plan, or not?  The Dining Plan is essentially a (mostly) prepaid dining package.  Official Full Explanation from the Head Cheese here.  Bit more user-friendly version here.  Finally, to find out the exact cost of the different plans, use this Dining Package Calculator.  If you’re still not sure whether it’s a good value for you, use this FANTASTIC Dining Calculator to have somebody else do the math.  But only after you’ve done at least a rough estimate on your own <a math geek always double-checks her work><stern teacher look>.  Basically I have been dividing my time between this step and step 7 over the last month.  No matter what permutation I look at, it just doesn’t save us any money to use a Disney Dining Plan on this trip.  I have used it in the past to great effect, but the plan price has gone up, plus we have another Disney Adult with teen DD now, so it doesn’t wind up making sense.  It is very convenient though, and it’s great to have all that taken care of before you even go on your trip.
  7. It’s almost the moment you’ve been waiting for!  Plan your ideal dining situation.  Dream big!  Character breakfast in Cinderella castle? Done!  Romantic dinner at Le Cellier? Check!  Grab a turkey leg on the way to the Great Movie Ride? As you wish!  <– Gasp! a Non-Disney reference!  Set up your dining preferences on your handy trip spreadsheet (remember that for a Disney trip, you’ll have your dining info on your Itinerary Tab– to see how the food break fits into your overall plan for the day, and on a separate Dining tab- where you make note of the dates/times/confirmation #s of all your ADRs.  Since we’re not doing the Dining Plan on this trip, I also have approximate costs for our TS choices in my Dining tab:
If you look closely, you'll see that some cells have comments- this is where I've noted that a restaurant gives a discount for having the Disney Visa card or some other detail I want to remember.

If you look closely, you’ll see that some cells have comments- this is where I’ve noted that a restaurant gives a discount for having the Disney Visa card or some other detail I want to remember.

8. Wait the torturous amount of time between when you have your ideal plan ready and the date you are allowed to book. Review this helpful step-by-step on how to make an ADR UPDATE: forgot to mention that Disney requires a Credit Card Guarantee for most TS ADRs- make sure you have a linked CC in My Disney Experience before starting to make ADRs.  If you don’t cancel by midnight the night before your ADR, or don’t show up for your ADR, they will charge the CC $10 per person.  You don’t have to ultimately pay for your meal with that card though, it’s just a guarantee. 

9. Ack, it’s still not your ADR date: the 180-day mark. Begin having nightmares of having to survive on the leftovers from Goofy’s Candy Company.  Sugar twitches optional.  <This is my life right now>

10. The night before your ADR date, poise yourself at the computer/smartphone on the Disney site or My Disney Experience app, ready to pounce the moment the clock hits 6:00am EST.  You are fueled with adrenaline, pixie dust, and borderline-legal substances.  YOU CAN DO THIS.

11. And…..go!  Make those ADRs!  Screenshot every confirmation screen!  Record the details in your Dining tab!  Guests staying at a Disney Resort may make ADRs for up to 10 days after the check-in date, so don’t stop until the website’s wheels fall off!  Make sure your ADRs are linked to your resort reservation on My Disney Experience!  Call 407-WDW-DINE (407-939-3463) starting at 7:00am EST if all else fails!

12. You are now ready to eat, drink, and snack around the World, trusty ADRs in hand/app/spreadsheet.  Mickey Bar, here I come!

mickey bar

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Travel planning for dorks: spreadsheet tutorial part 6

This is the final post in the spreadsheet tutorial!  See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Let’s add a bit of functionality to our spreadsheets.  As you have seen, they are not simply a way to list things neatly.  We can use many cool Excel features to make a spreadsheet look good AND do some work for you.


The possibilities are endless!

The possibilities are endless!

First, a short glossary and map.

  • cell: one space on the spreadsheet, usually containing one piece of information.  Identified with its column and row position, such as A1, or D15.
  • range: a series of cells, which can be horizontal or vertical.  Many formulas require you to select a range of cells.
  • column: all the cells in a vertical line.  Identified with letters of the alphabet, beginning with A.
  • row: all the cells in a horizontal line.  Identified with ascending numbers, beginning with 1.
  • formula bar: the line used to enter information or a formula into a cell.
  • formula/function: an equation or piece of logic that uses the information in a cell or range of cells.  For mathematical functions, equations will start with the “=” sign, such as =140.20+55.62
  • name box: a space outside of the spreadsheet that identifies which cell you are working in.
  • sheet or “tab”: the collection of cells you are currently working in.  It’s easy to add one, just press the + sign in the circle next to where it says Sheet1.  If you right-click on “Sheet1,” you’ll see options to makes changes to your Sheet/tab, including renaming. You can never have too many!
  • workbook: this is what Microsoft calls the file you are currently working in.  Your workbook contains all your sheets.






Commonly Used Formulas/Functions

  • SUM: this is pretty easy, right?  Just addition.  To add up the values in a range of cells, type =sum(first cell in the range: last cell in the range), such as =sum(C3:C14) as in the example above, which of course equals 365.  To add up values in cells that are spread out around the sheet, just use “+,” such as =B5+C7+F3. 
  • AVERAGE: also self-explanatory.  Write the formula the same way you do for a sum, using a range.  I made an average in the example above (it was in cell D15, written as =AVERAGE(D3:D14).
  • CONDITIONAL FORMATTING: this is a series of formatting options available to a given cell or range of cells.  There are too many options to list here, but you can place specific conditions on a cell so that its background color, text color, or border color changes when those conditions are met.  I use this function to make a cell change color when my Actual Cost for a trip budget item exceeds or falls below my Estimated Cost, as explained in the Budget tutorial post.  Experiment with these- it really helps with household budgets as well…you can see right away when you’ve gone over your budget in any given category.  Well, of course I have a spreadsheet for my household budget!  What kind of spreadsheet dork would I be if I didn’t?  I also have one to track all the books I read in a year…and one to track all the flights my kids have been on…let me stop.

cond formatting


Inserting/Using Functions

This is a breeze.  You just have to figure out what you want the values in your cells to tell you.  Press the handy fx button to the left of the formula bar to pull up this dialog box:

function box

You can type the description and Excel will tell you which formula to use, as well as its definition (see the definition for AVERAGE in the picture above).  Under “Or select a category,” if you select All, be prepared for a huge list of words you haven’t seen since high school calculus.  It’s a little scary.  Suffice it to say, Excel is magical and can do any and all math for you.

If you’ve used a formula, gotten the answer, and prefer to change the way that number is presented, click the dropdown menu in the Number Format section.  You can then make your response appear as a monetary amount, a percentage, a fraction, or many more options.  You can modify how your text appears, too, it doesn’t have to be a number.

number optionsNifty shortcuts

  • I often see people scrolling through large spreadsheets looking for information.  Please, save your eyes and use “Ctrl + F.” Find anything in the current sheet or workbook easily.  You can also Find and Replace, if you realize after the fact that you had misspelled something in the first sheet and copied it in many other places.



  • If you have this problem: long titleYou can solve it at least 3 different ways: First, you can extend the size of the column (Column A, in this case) to the exact length of your text by holding your mouse on the line between Column A and Column B until you see what looks like a plus sign with arrows on the east and west points, then double-clicking; this sometimes messes up the formatting of the cells below.  If you no likey that (I definitely don’t), just hit Undo and turn to my good friends in the Alignment section, Wrap Text and Merge & Center.

wrap and merge center

          Wrap Text resizes the cell to fit the information in it:

wrap text

          Merge & Center combines adjacent cells and centers the text.  Just select at least 2 cells.  The merged cells then act as one.  Voilà!

merge & center

  • I get annoyed when scrolling and lose my header columns or row names.  Enter the Freeze Panes options.  First, at the top, change your menu from Home to View.  Then select Freeze Panes in the Window Section.  You’ll see the options below.  Use Freeze Panes for a custom view, or just use Freeze Top Row and Freeze First Column.  You can use both Top Row and First Column at the same time.  Now, you can scroll having to go back to the top to see what you are looking at.


  • You’ll also find the Hide function in the Window Section of the View menu.  Hide allows you to hide a column, row or even a whole workbook.  This allows you to keep the information available, but hide away if you don’t need to see it just then.  I find this very useful at work- they send me spreadsheets will all sorts of information that doesn’t help me.  Instead of deleting the column, I just right-click on the column letter, and select Hide.  It reduces the clutter on my screen, and I can always get the column back by hovering my mouse over where the column used to be, and extending the size again.  Many a work crisis has been solved by looking carefully at a sheet and realizing that info has not disappeared, it was just hidden.  You can tell because a letter will be skipped- if I hid Column C, my screen will show columns in the following order: A, B, D, etc.
  • Finally, Insert Comment is great for, well, inserting comments.  You right-click on a cell, and type in a little note.  I like to remind myself of the hours for a tourist attraction, to remind my husband what credit card to use for a type of expense, or leave funny notes to myself to find later.  I’m easily amused.  A cell with a comment attached will display a little red triangle in the top right corner.  Hover your mouse over the triangle to see the comment:


Whew!  Look, if all else fails, just use this Microsoft Tutorial for Excel.  Don’t forget to play with the fonts, text color, and borders to make it look pretty as well.  Happy spreadsheeting!

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Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial part 5

See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

We’ve reached what I consider the most important tab in our trip planning spreadsheet- the Itinerary.  This is where you can plan, revise the plan, see what a given day might look like, change your mind many times, and generally map out the …

It was super-fun making this graphic!

It was super fun making this graphic!

Why is the Itinerary so important?  We already have all the budget notes, confirmation details, to-do timeline and packing lists, so, we might be able to wing it, right? NO!  You need to organize your day so you can fit in the things that are important to you. The itinerary is not meant to tie you down and restrict your movements.  It’s meant to free you from having to remember all the things that have to happen in a particular order so you don’t miss out on the very things you wanted to see on a trip in the first place.  We’re not talking 15-minute increments of planning, though I’ll admit that Disney World trips require tighter time windows than any other kind.  But for a regular trip, my rule of thumb for any vacation day is to plan an AM activity, a PM activity and at least 1 meal.  The rest can be filled in as you go.

Your spreadsheet can be organized thusly:

  • the first few Header lines indicate the day of the trip (Day 1, etc), the date, and the day of the week (Monday, etc).
  • the cells below contain general information (hotel breakfast, meet Rosie at 10am, sleep in, etc.)
  • any confirmed or reserved activities or meals should be bolded so they jump out at you when you glance at the sheet  
the planned meal for this day was snacking our way through Chelsea Market, right by the High Line

the planned meal for this NYC day was snacking our way through Chelsea Market, right by the High Line

I like to try to fit 6 or 7 days across, in “landscape” view, as least while I plan.  I sometimes have to rearrange the font size or print area if the whole itinerary doesn’t fit on 1 page when I print it.  Here is a sample of one of my Disney itineraries- it’s much more detailed:

warning: staring at this too long may cause seizures

warning: staring at this too long may cause seizures

I realize that this image looks overwhelming.  But it’s simply a more fleshed out version of the simpler itinerary above.  For example, Disney resort guests (staying on-property at a Disney Hotel) have access to Extra Magic Hours in the parks.  Those details should be noted on the itinerary to take advantage of the lower crowds.  Then, you want to specify what headline rides you want to hit at Rope Drop, where and when you have an Advanced Dining Reservation, whether you will and when you take an afternoon break, etc.  Then it’s color-coordinated by Park.  More on Disney planning in a detailed series of posts on Disney trip stuff.

Anyway, I’ve found that Itinerary planning must be contained to certain parameters- it’s very easy to overplan and go off the deep end with details.  There are some guidelines:

  • the more people involved, the laxer the time constraints need to be.  If you’ve ever seen a Real Housewives excursion on reality TV, you know what a pain it is to wait around for the late people and accommodate those with 40 pieces of luggage.  Be flexible with regard to starting times!
  • the younger the people involved, the lower the mileage per day.  We already know how much stuff you need to haul when traveling with little ones- let’s minimize how much hauling is necessary in a given day.  Think day trips to the pumpkin patch that also has a petting zoo and small café vs. stopping at every antiques shop in downtown Nashville.
  • plan at least 1 meal, or better yet, get your foodie friends or family members to help you research!  The whole, “Where should we eat? I don’t know, whatever’s good.  How about Greek? No thanks, I hate olive oil, lamb, rosemary, and mint…..” conversation is so, so tiring.  I’d much rather go back and forth over the course of 12 texts/emails/FB messages before the trip and have a confirmed reservation than have that kind of conversation while I’m hungry.  My brother-in-law is a whiz at social media stuff, and uses apps like OpenTable and Yelp to find yummy food spots.  He directed us to 2 great restaurants in Vancouver, which I never would have found on my own.  By the way, I’m the person who hates all the most common Greek food ingredients.  I’ve decided that the only way I can ever visit Greece is via cruise ship, so I can avoid actually eating on Greek soil and just eat on the boat.  Sad,  but I have to see Olympia before I die, so that’s the way it has to be.
  • depending on the overall pace of the trip, plan restful mornings or evenings at least every 3 days.  Of course, you know what kind of pace your crew can handle best, but I find it essential to sleep in some mornings, even at Disney.  This is a vacation, after all.  Sleeping in allows you to be more alert for late-night activities like theater and fireworks, where having an early night lets you rest up for an early start the next day.  In my experience, most adults can only burn the candle from both ends for 3 days max before burning out.  Vacation burnout = fighting and stress, ew.
  • plot out your transportation between activities ahead of time.  This especially applies to those with a poor sense of direction, like ME.  I print out maps and put them in my binder, and write out what I call “useful directions,” in which I translate something useless like “travel 500 meters north” to something I can actually understand, like “make a left out of the main door and walk 1/3 of mile (<10 min) towards the waterfront area, if you’ve passed the McDonald’s you’ve gone too far.” Also, make it your business to know about the public transportation you will be relying on, including the cost of the fare, what station you want to go to, what forms on payment are accepted on board, and how to get back to your hotel.
  • leave room for magic and/or cartwheeling.  Easy to do at Disney, where magic lives 🙂 But sometimes you can find travel fun in unexpected places.  My daughter told me that one of her favorite moments of our road trip this summer was an unexpected stop at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center, where we cartwheeled across the grass and took a short break before continuing to drive.  Who knew?
  • make all your planning mistakes before the trip.  By going over your itinerary with a fine-toothed comb many times before your trip, you become very familiar with the rhythm of your journey (drink!) before you even pull out your suitcase.  These planning sessions are where you will catch that Tourist Attraction A is very near to Relative T’s house, plus you’ll pass Food Truck Z on the way back to the hotel- and that’s one day planned, yay!  Or you might notice that Park X and Park Y are very similar and you can choose to visit one and drop the other.  And since you’re looking at all the days at once, you’ll be able to schedule those restful times efficiently.  Plus, you can keep things balanced for the kids- if you’re doing a museum morning, plan a playground afternoon.  Personal experience note: unless you have an iron stomach, keep “seafood dinner” and “ice cream stop” far away from each other on the itinerary- that combination of foods has never ended well for me.
  • embrace this concept: not everyone has to be together all the time on vacation.  Sometimes, you need a vacation from each other, too.  This especially applies to those of us not native to Hawaii- our families are on the mainland and so we’re stuck looking at each other’s faces 99% of the time.  I love my husband and kids, but I also love other people and want to spend time with them.  So, split up, pair off, bow out, or whatever, because absence really does make the heart grow fonder. My kids are happy to spend special time their grandparents, and I’m happy enjoying a museum with my equally-dorky husband.  See if you can squeeze in some solo time, too.  It’s very restorative.
  • be on your trip, and enjoy the adventure.  This means to be in the moment, and not micromanaging what is coming up next.  This was Danny Tanner’s fatal mistake on the Hawaiian vacation episode of Full House- he relied solely on this:


Seriously, though, the Itinerary is basically a guideline, wish list, and record of the trip all in one.  It’s the tab I spend the most time on while spreadsheeting.  I print out several copies once it’s finalized, which is usually just a few days before we leave.  The rest is up to the universe.

The final post in the Spreadsheet Tutorial will be about most-used formulas and Excel tips/tricks.  I’ll include any questions if you have them!


Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial part 2

Please see Part 1 here.

After all the columns in the Estimated Costs cells in the Budget tab are filled in, we can start to figure out what needs to happen when.  That’s where the To-Do Timeline comes in.  I list the months leading up to the trip, then usually 3 Days, 2 Days, the Day/Night Before and Travel Day as header categories. In my example below, I swapped Last Day at Work for the 2 Days header since it was a weekday.

I generally start planning my trips 12-18 months out.  I’m working around 2 school schedules and a non-negotiable summer activity for my tween, so I’m always trying to maximize time by leaving the moment school ends, or getting back home 12 hours before school begins.  Planning in advance helps a lot with that, especially having a better choice of flight times.

If booking flights with miles, it’s important to know that most airlines begin to release award availability about 330 days out.  In my experience, that’s when you get the best choice of seats at the lowest, or Saver level.  Availability then wanes, or sometimes disappears, until about 30 days before your departure date.  If you don’t find any when you first look, keep checking periodically, as you never know when a few seats might open up.  High-tech folks: there is a paid service called ExpertFlyer that monitors award availability and lets you know when seats are available on your desired flight.  I don’t want to pay, and I can’t live on the edge by waiting until the last minute, but if you must or prefer to book closer to departure, you can get lucky with award seats just before your trip.  Keep in mind that you may need to pay a close-in booking fee if your trip departs less than 21 days after you book it.  I love this handy Date Calculator.  Because who wants to count backwards to 330 days manually?

For me, then, the first block in the To-Do Timeline is about 13 months away from Travel Day/Day of.  I just make a short list under “May 2013,” for example, for a trip in May 2014.  It might contain items like:

  • research flight routes on United Airlines
  • make note of preferred flight times/#s
  • establish estimated monthly savings amount.  I take my total estimated cost and divide by the # of months until the trip, to determine how much we need to save per month to have all the money before we go- I don’t do credit card debt.  Though- we do put every single expense possible on credit cards to reap the miles, points, cash back and other rewards that may be available.  More on that in another post.
  • decide on a savings vehicle.  Currently we use an online account.  Easy to fund, hard to withdraw.  Other options might include bank savings accounts or even checking accounts if they pay decent interest.

As I get closer to the trip, I use the strikethrough option to mark when a task is completed.  I use the strikethrough instead of just deleting it so I can look back and be sure that I did indeed complete it.  It’s absurd how much I love crossing items off a to-do list, you guys.  It’s like a shopper’s high!

A fully completed To-Do-Timeline is a thing of beauty

A fully completed To-Do-Timeline is a thing of beauty

I use the same idea in my paper planner, except that when I complete a task for the day, I highlight it blue instead of striking it out, which would make it look messy to me.  Why blue?  It’s my favorite color for several reasons.  Here’s one.

A list under the “3 Days Before” header might contain:

  • return all library books
  • plan to consume all perishable foods
  • request to stop the mail
  • double-check passports (who am I kidding, it’s really a quadruple-check by this point; I’m kind of obsessive about the passports)
  • general grooming: clipping nails, plucking eyebrows, etc.  I don’t dress up for the plane necessarily, but I do want to be clean and neat.
  • begin cleaning the house
  • purchase airplane candy and snacks.  Somehow we began a tradition of buying multi-packs of gum and a bag of chewable Werther’s for every flight.
  • locate/label all charging cords.  I use a Brother P-Touch.  Labels are my besties.
  • print finalized carry-on packing and regular packing lists
  • print finalized itineraries

I find that the To-Do Timeline really helps me organize my time and spread the work out.  I also have the freedom to move things from one header to another when things change, or when one activity is dependent upon the completion of another.  Things that must happen on a very specific date (like making dining reservations at Disney 180 days out) are bolded and in red so they really stand out.

I’m currently in the “August 2014” block of activities for our winter trip to Ecuador.  Recently, I completed tasks like sending a draft itinerary to my HUGE family to start determining who is interested in doing what activity.  We’re taking a boat trip through a mangrove forest, and will hopefully see some river dolphins!  And, we’re determining the best order of operations for a road trip to Cuenca and ride on the Nariz del Diablo, ay ay ay. The almost 24 straight hours of travel it will take to get there from Honolulu will be worth it.  Especially to watch my son meet his great-grandfather 🙂  As my buddy Stitch says…




Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial Part 1

This post (and blog, really) assumes a basic knowledge of Microsoft Excel.  If the terms cell, value, formula, tab, column, and function mean nothing to you, perhaps look into one of those Office tutorials before diving in.  They’re kind of mesmerizing.

Not surprisingly, I am all about spreadsheets when it comes to organizing a trip.  Our June 2014 adventure was a trip to the East Coast, where we visited with various family members, attended an excellent Broadway show, road-tripped from NJ to PA to NY and back to NJ, attended a Yankees Game, and went to the Bronx Zoo.  On our road trip, we visited Hershey Park, went to State College (PA), and saw Niagara Falls from the Canadian side.  So…we were busy.

We stayed on course, on schedule for the most part, and mostly within budget due to diligent spreadsheetingOxford Dictionaries agrees that this is indeed a word.  Love it!  I wish it were an Olympic sport- this would be a collision of various things that I love.  I digress.

For this trip, my spreadsheet included 6 different tabs: Budget, To-Do Timeline, Details, Itinerary, Carry-on Packing List, and Packing List.  This post focuses on the first, and often most important planning tab, Budget.

Column headers include: estimated cost, actual cost, booking date, and confirmation #

Column headers include: estimated cost, actual cost, booking date, and confirmation #

I like to have a kicky font and fun name for the trip.  I can’t say this was my best work on the “trip name” side.  OK, I also need the trip dates to be nice and big at the top for easy reference.

The categories in Column B break down specific kinds of expenses.  This is the Transportation category:

Pro-Tip: I have 2 sections for Transportation, because some are Advance Expenses, and some are Variable expenses

Remembering the column headers I outlined above: in the Advance (incurred before the trip) expenses, I estimated our airfare for 4 from HNL to EWR to be $2500, and wound up paying $2831.34.  Over budget, but this is an amazing RT price for 4 people, and it was all thanks to the Alaska Airlines Visa Companion Fare benefit.  More on that in another post.  Then of course I have the booking date, and the confirmation #s.

In the Variable (incurred while on the trip) expenses, my Actual Cost for luggage fees was $100, which was $50 over my Estimated Cost of $50.  I have the spreadsheet set up to highlight the cell if the value in the Actual Cost cell is higher than in the Estimated Cost cell (via Conditional Formatting).  This helps me see where we need to adjust budget categories for the next trip.  This particular expense was annoying, because all of my other airline cards have free checked luggage as a benefit, but the Alaska card doesn’t.  I knew that going in, but it still bugs.

My other categories included Advance and Variable breakdowns for the  Pennsylvania and New York portions of the trip, with specific attractions and Misc road trip costs.  You’ll notice no other lodging cost beyond our Seattle airport hotel, our Hershey Park Hotel, and our Niagara Falls hotel.  This is because we stayed with my fantastic parents the rest of the time.  They have a great view of the NYC skyline!

Each category has a subtotal in the Estimated Cost column (highlighted a mint green), which feeds into either an Advance expense Grand Total, or a Variable expense Grand Total (highlighted in light blue for Estimated Cost, and pink for Actual Cost).  Finally, those 2 Grand Totals feed into the GRAND TOTAL at the top (highlighted in gray).  Below each GRAND TOTAL is a Variance, or the difference between the Estimated costs and the Actual costs.  Whew!

Close-up of Advance expenses section

Close-up of Advance expenses section

If you’re still reading, congratulations on your excellent attention span!  I arrived at this method of budget planning long ago, and it works for the way my brain processes information.  Feel free to customize to your heart’s content.  If there are requests, I can make a sample spreadsheet on Google Docs with the formulas, etc. all ready to go, and folks can download and enter their own categories/amounts.  Just be sure to pick a better name for a NY trip than “New York, New York.”

The next post in this series will focus on the To-Do Timeline tab.