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Travel Tips from an Intrepid Traveling DBA

By Brad McGehee, 2010/06/18

Red Oxx Air Boss Carry-On Recently, Buck Woody challenged myself, Paul Randal, and Brent Ozar to write a blog post on “How I Travel”. I have actually been thinking about blogging about this topic, but I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in hearing my travel tips, but since Buck put me up to this, I can blame him if you find this post boring. As I write this, I have purposely not read Buck’s, Paul’s or Brent’s blog posts, as I didn’t want to have their blog posts influence mine. So once I have finished writing this post, I will read theirs and find how many similarities, and differences, we have among our traveling styles. Hopefully I’ll be able to learn from them.

I’ll start off describing what I bring along with me on my trips. Then I’ll finish off the post with specific travel tips I find handy while I am on the road.

What I Bring

Last year I was away from home 125 days, which was just a little bit too much traveling for my tastes. This year I hope to keep it just under 100 days, which is still a lot, but its just part of the job. As you might imagine, I have gotten my packing list, and packing skills, down to a science. In fact, I can pack in less than 30 minutes because I know exactly what I am going to bring on each trip, which includes:

1) My most important piece of travel gear is my Red Oxx Air Boss carry-on travel bag. I have tried out many different kinds of luggage over the years, and this bag is the best. While expensive, it is ruggedly built, and after nearly four years of traveling with it, it still shows no signs of wear. In fact, it looks brand new. Unlike most luggage, this bag is made of fabric, is designed to be carried over the shoulder, is only 21”  x 8”  x 13”  (2,184 cu. in.) in size and weighs just under 4 pounds. The bag’s size is designed for international travel and will fit in virtually any airplane without needing to be checked. If you have ever compared other carry-on luggage sizes, you will find this one much smaller than typical, but its small size is why it’s so great. It is lightweight and I can carry it anywhere.

Now, you may be saying that this sounds like a great carry-on bag for carrying a few things you might need on the plane, but this is the only luggage I carry (other than my backpack which holds my electronics, which I will talk about next). In other words, this small bag holds everything I need to travel, including all my clothing, toiletries, and other miscellaneous items. In fact, I have used this bag for trips that have lasted 30 days, and I have found that everything I need can be carried in it, often with room to spare. I follow the packing philosophy of travel expert Doug Dyment, who runs the www.onebag.com website, which means that I pack very light. Since the topic of packing light is well-covered on his website, there is no need for me to repeat it hear. Check out the website for more information.

2) My second most important piece of travel gear is my MountainSmith Explore backpack, which I use to carry my electronics. While the exact model I own is no longer made, the current model is very similar. The bag is also tough, although it is beginning to show some wear, but that is to be expected after using it for 5 years. This small 18” x 13” x 8” (1,586 cu. in.) bag weighs just under 3 pounds and carries all of my electronics, which includes a laptop and a netbook computer (more on my electronics later). The backpack has many different sections and pouches that makes it easy to hold everything I need to bring along, and to keep it well organized.

3) I carry two computers, my primary and my backup. My primary laptop is a Dell 15” Studio XPS with dual-cores, 6GB RAM, and 256 GB SSD drives. It is relatively lightweight and powerful. My backup computer is a Toshiba NB-205 netbook. While the netbook is slow, it is lightweight and allows me to make my presentations should my primary laptop fail. I protect both computers using protective sleeves, and even with the sleeves on, they both fit comfortably in my MountainSmith backpack, along with my other gear.

In order to keep my two computers synchronized, just in case my primary fails and I need to use my secondary, I use the www.dropbox.com software. This free software (there is also a paid version), will automatically synchronize files between both laptops, in addition to making these same files available via the web. So in the worst case, and I somehow I lose both of my computers, I can still go to the web and download my presentations.

4) While I am not much of a cell phone user, I bring along my BlackBerry Bold 9000, which I mainly use for e-mail, Twitter, and for reading the news when I get bored at airports. I also use it’s built-in GPS and Google Maps to help me find my way about when I am walking. It comes with a leather case to protect it while it rides in my backpack, which is where is normally stays. I hate carrying a cell phone on my belt, unless I have no other choice.

5) Given that I have a GPS in my phone, it might seem redundant that I also carry a Garmin Nuvi 775T GPS that includes both U.S. and European maps. I use this when I am traveling by rental car, as the GPS in my phone is not really designed to be used when driving. I also subscribe to the Garmin map update service so I get updated maps every 3 months. The GPS is protected by a leather case, and the car mount and cable I carry in a plastic bag so they don’t get lost or entangled.

6) To help pass the time in airports and airplanes, and to help mask the incessant noise that pervades both, I bring along a Zune MP3 player; and my Shure SE210 Sound Isolating Earphones, which are much, much better than the standard earphones that come with MP3 players. These earphones are pricey, but worth every dollar.

7) One very important accessory I carry, that is not a common travel item, is my SureFire U2 Ultra variable-output LED flashlight (2-100 lumens). It lasts up to 175 hours in low mode (which is the mode I use most), and I use it all the time to see in the dark, such as when picking up a rental car at night and I want to check the outside of the car for damage and to check the inside to see where all the controls are. It is very small, so it takes up very little space. It also comes in very handy when a building or hotel loses power. I highly recommend every traveler to carry a good flashlight.

8 ) To record my journeys, I bring along a Canon G11 digital camera. It is very small and creates great photographs, especially low-light photos, which I commonly take at events. It is protected by a case, just as it all my electronic gear.

9) Since I never know if it will rain or not, I carry an REI Travel Umbrella, which fits handily inside my backpack, so it is always with me in case of unexpected downpours.

10) While most hotels now have wireless Internet access, a surprising amount still don’t. Because of this, I carry a portable Linksys wireless router. The model I have is no longer made, but it work allows me to work with my computer in bed at a hotel instead of being tethered to a desk when wireless Internet access is not available. In some cases, I still use the portable router, even if wireless Internet is available because using it allows me to use both my computers if I want, all for the same cost. If you use a hotel’s wireless Internet access for two different computers, you have to pay two fees (unless you have free Internet access), one daily fee for each computer. But if you use the portable router, the hotel thinks you only have one computer, and you can connect as many computers to your wireless network as you want. Of course, I encrypt my connection so another person in a different room can’t use my bandwidth.

11) Some of you may be wondering how I can get away with carrying such a small bag for my clothing. This is because I only bring along four different sets of clothing, one of which I wear, which means I only need to pack three sets of clothing. I select clothing that mixes and matches, and is easily washable and wrinkle-resistant. Because virtually all of my trips are longer than four days, I wash my clothes when traveling, which is much easier than trying to bring along clean clothing for every day of travel. I generally use the hotel’s laundry room, or sometimes I wash my clothing in the sink of my hotel bathroom using special pre-packaged laundry soap. All the clothing I bring is lightweight and air dries quickly.

To help keep my clothes from wrinkling while in my Oxx Air Boss travel bag, I also carry along two 18” Eagle Creek Pack-It Folders, one for pants and one for shirts, which fit well within the travel bag’s two outer dividers. Depending on the clothing, I still might have to iron some clothing after unpacking it.

One piece of clothing I always bring along, no matter what the weather is expected to be where I am traveling, is a Patagonia R1 Full-Zip Jacket. This lightweight, non-bulky, warm jacket is more like a sweater than a jacket, and I use it when traveling on planes (most are too cold for me), during cool days, and in cold rooms when attending conferences. When I am traveling in cold weather, I also bring along an Arcteryx Gamma Softshell Jacket. This is a wind and water resistant jacket that I can wear alone, or with my Patagonia jacket if it really cold. Also, when traveling in cold weather, I bring along lightweight gloves and ear protectors, which I store in the pockets of the Arcteryx jacket.

Depending on where I am traveling, or at which event I am speaking at, I may bring one or two pair of shoes. Most of the time, I wear a pair of New Balance walking shoes, but I also sometimes carry along hiking shoes or dress shoes.

12) In my backpack a have a smaller bag that I use to carry small miscellaneous electronic gear, such as cables, USB sticks, batteries, a Kensington Notebook Lock, a Logitech VX Nano Laser Notebook Mouse,  a Logitech Professional Presenter, and electrical adapters if I am traveling internationally.

13) Because accidents happen when traveling (I cut my finger and got a terrible infection while in Australia), I carry an Adventure Smart Travel Medical Kit that I have modified slightly to carry a few more items than what comes standard with the kit.

14) Because I spend a lot of time sleeping on airplanes, I also carry eye covers and ear plugs to help block out the world while I am trying to sleep.

The above list covers most everything that I carry when traveling, although I have left out a few things that would be boring, such as my reading glasses, glass cleaners, toiletries, and so on. In the next section, I will offer some specific travel tips.

Other Travel Tips

1) I only bring along hand-carry luggage, the Red Oxx Air Boss bag and MountainSmith backpack, as I described above. I do my absolute best to not check in luggage. Both bags meeting airline size requirements, which means I rarely (New Zealand Airlines would only allow one carry-on) have to check in my luggage. Checking in luggage is time-consuming (both when checking in at the airport and when leaving the airport after arrival), and is prone to getting lost, especially if my flight connections are tight because of delayed flights. I much prefer carrying these two bags than dragging along luggage with wheels, because there are a lot of places where luggage with wheels doesn’t work well, such as on escalators, curbs, rough sidewalks, or no sidewalks, and getting in and out of taxies, and so on. Because the luggage is so light, and I keep my gear to a minimum, the weight is not bad. In fact, I have a bad back and I have had virtually no problems carrying these bags everywhere I go.

2) When I go through security at the airport, I am fully prepared before I even get to the security checkpoint. I take all metal out of my pockets and put it in my backpack, my liquid toiletries are in a 1 quart plastic bag, and both computers (which are in protective sleeve) are ready to come out in seconds. You can leave the protective sleeves on your laptops when they go through the screen machine, which helps protect them. About one out of three times I am asked to have one or both of my pieces of luggage to be hand inspected as all the electronics I carry might look a little suspicious. I am used to this and it has never been a problem.

3) I make all my own travel plans over the Internet. I have worked at companies in the past the had their own travel department which made all the reservations. I hated that as they always made mistakes. As I book my own travel, these mistakes don’t happen.

4) After traveling many different airlines over the years, I have chosen American Airlines as my main carrier. They have a very good frequent flyer program and treat their best customers (like me who travel 100,000+ miles a year, very well). I almost always get upgraded to business or first class, which is very advantageous for long trips. I avoid, as much as possible, mixing airlines in the same trip, as if you have a problem with your ticket, you often have to deal with both airlines to resolve it. It is much easier to deal with only one airline. I also book my flights so that I have at least two hours between connecting flights. This often makes my day longer, but helps to avoid missed connections. To help minimize the discomfort at waiting at airports, I joined American Airlines Admiral’s Club, which makes waiting much more tolerable. Membership is relatively expensive, but I get a discount for being a frequent traveler, and it is money well spent. I tend to book my flights as far ahead as possible in order to get the best choice of seat. I am very picky about which seat I am on the plane, and use www.seatguru.com to help me select the best available seat, assuming I am not already familiar with the plane I will be flying in.

5) My biggest travel expense are hotels, even more than airplane tickets. I generally stay at Marriott-brand or Starwood-brand (Sheraton, Weston, etc.) hotels. I always select a hotel that is closet to the venue I am attending to minimize the need for taking taxis or renting cars. I prefer to walk to the venue if I can. In most cases, I arrive a day earlier than I need to in order to recover from overnight flights and time zone changes. I also, if affordable, try to get a room with a separate room for the bedroom, which helps to avoid the noise that so often comes from the hallways. I also request a room on the highest floor, away from elevators, ice machines, and busy streets. This helps to minimize noise, which I find distracting when I am trying to work in the hotel room.

6) I try to avoid renting cars, but often I have no choice. I only rent cars from Hertz, and I joined their #1 Club Gold so that my rental car is already ready to go when I arrive at the airport. This way, I don’t have to stay in line waiting to pick up my car. I always reserve the least expensive car available, but in most cases, Hertz will upgrade me to a bigger car.

7) As those who have traveled with me know, I don’t like to spend a lot of time eating at fancy restaurants. To save time and money, I usually eat fast food, or buy groceries at a store and bring them back to the hotel. I also avoid room service (or eating at the hotel’s restaurant), unless I am checking into a new hotel at night, and I have yet to locate any fast food places within easy walking distance, and I am too tired to leave the hotel or room.

8 ) I am a member of the AAA, which helps me to get many discounts at hotels and for rental cars, or can help out if I run out of gas or lock myself outside of a rental car (although this had not happened yet). The discounts save my company a lot of money each year, although I pay for the AAA membership myself, as I also use their services for my own cars at home when not traveling.

While many people envy all my travels, it is actually quite stressful for me. It takes a lot out of you, especially when traveling overseas or when having to take redeye flights. If the travel wasn’t part of the job, I would prefer to stay home and work out of my home office.

I hope you find some of this information useful, and if you have any travel advice you would like to offer, please do so.


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