Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Travel Tools I'm Most Thankful For

It's the time of year when people post about the things they're most thankful for. Of course I am thankful for my health, my family, my friends, and my cats. But for my day-to-day existence, I'm thankful for a few things that make my professional life easier. They'll probably make your life easier, too.

(The following are not paid endorsements, yadda yadda...)

1. Kayak

Other travel-aggregator sites have come along since, but for me, Kayak is still the first place I go when I'm looking for flights or vehicle rentals. Their filters are the best I've come across, and the site loads really fast. It is true that the search results don't include every airline, but thanks to the miracle of browser tabs, it's still useful to have Kayak in one tab and (for example) in another to compare.


This has taken over from Kayak as my go-to for hotel searches, especially out of the U.S. but increasingly for domestic travel, too. The filtering on the site is rather clunky, but it includes the widest range of accommodations I've found, so it's the best one-stop to see what's available where you're going. One caveat: the prices on the site are almost never lower than what you can get by booking with the property's site directly, and it's always a good idea to book directly, rather than with a 3rd-party provider (how I know this is a whole 'nother post). So I use this mainly as an info-gathering tool, and rarely for a booking tool. But as an info tool, it's indispensable.

3. Google Apps

Like it or not, right now it's Google's world, and we just live in it. But dammit, their stuff is just so useful. Aside from GMail, I use Google Calendar to keep my life in order (across both business and personal accounts), and Google Drive to store important documents so I can access them from anywhere and share them with other people as needed. And Google Maps has basically been my brain for the past several years. Sometimes I feel kinda dirty when I think about how dependent I've become upon Google to live my life, and I'm sure eventually I will move on to the next big thing; but for now, what can I say, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid.

4. Evernote

I wish I could remember who first mentioned this app in my hearing, because I want to bake them cookies of gratitude. I have Evernote open every minute of every day on my laptop when I'm at home, and it's on the main screens of both my phone and my tablet. Everything, and I mean everything goes into Evernote, from task lists to bus schedules to meeting notes to set lists to random things I don't want to forget. I also put all my itineraries and tour books in there, in a separate notebook that is shared with band members so everybody has the latest version of our plans. I do keep a hard copy of the tour book with me on the road in case of catastrophic global technology failure, but otherwise this has already helped me save dozens of trees.

5. FlightAware

This one is fun even if you don't travel. You can literally track any flight in the air over North America at any time, so if you're bored some night when nothing's on TV, try it! If you know the number of the flight your friend or family member is on you can track their progress, so you will know exactly what time you need to leave for the airport to pick them up. If you're the one traveling you can know your flight's status before you leave for the airport, and if you're lucky enough to be on a wi-fi enabled flight, you can keep an eye on its status even while en route. You can also see the latest info on your arrival and departure gates -- this is helpful if you have a tight connection, so you can know in advance whether you'll need to be That Guy falling all over your fellow passengers to get off the plane upon landing.  (I've found that FlightAware has more accurate and up-to-date info than the individual airline "flight status" pages, because it gets its data from Air Traffic Control, unfiltered by the airlines and their need to appease their marketing departments.)

6. Loyalty Programs

Oh, points and miles, how do I love thee? I love the free flight home to visit my family this holiday season. I love the free nights I have gotten in nice hotels in NYC the night before buttcrack-of-dawn flights, and the free nights that have made an otherwise out-of-reach hotel workable within our band's budget. (Sometimes, even just one free room can bring your overall average price per room down significantly.) When out of the country in a world where hotels still charge for wi-fi., I like getting it free anyway because of my "Platinum" status. And in the coming year, I am really going to enjoy the "Elite" status that will give me 2 free pieces of luggage, priority boarding so we'll have a prayer of getting the guitars on board as carry-ons, and a precious extra 2 inches of legroom.

7. Twitter

I'm an admitted Twitter addict for a variety of reasons, not least of which is how easy it is to get real-time updates on info that is relevant to my current travel or my destination. It's also easy to let my family know that I've just landed safely, or have been delayed. When I'm overseas in the land of Overpriced Global Roaming, when I'm on wi-fi a free Direct Message (DM) sure beats a 69-cent text. Plus, in the case of certain (but not all) travel-related companies, it's been instrumental in getting quick customer service and resolution to issues. (Again, those details are a whole 'nother post ...) Related to this, Twitter is also great for venting off a bit of steam every now and then. :)

So there you go. Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends. If you're traveling this week, I hope you have safe and delay-free journeys. And Happy Hanukkah to my mispuchah out there!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

So You've Booked A Tour. Now What? (Part 1 of a series-of-as-yet-undetermined-length)

So the time has come to level up. You've done your time playing years of open mics at your local coffeehouse, working your way up to weekly features there, then doing regular gigs in and around your hometown. Your buddy with the minor college radio hit is doing a run of gigs through the Midwest for a couple weeks next month, and his management has gotten you added as the main support for the whole thing. You've got your first out of town tour! Congratulations!

So here you are asking yourself, what the hell do I do now?!

There are a few basic things that will help you get your head around this undertaking. I'll be going through these in more detail in future posts in this series, but for now I will list them here:

1. Don't Panic. 

This is the basic rule of galactic hitchhikers everywhere.

2. Get Organized.

It's almost 2014, so presumably you have access to some sort of online calendar, either via Google or iCal or whatnot. Use it! Enter all your gigs into it, starting with the towns the venues are located in so that information is what shows first when you look at your calendar in Monthly view. Make this calendar shareable, and share it with your bandmates so they have access to it too.

I also highly recommend getting an organizer app like Evernote, which allows you to make notes and keep task lists updated on any of your devices, from your laptop at home to your phone or tablet on the road. You can also share your notes/task lists with your bandmates (even with just the free version) so everybody can be on the same page at all times.

3. Make Lists.

You don't have to be a Virgo (ahem) to live by lists. Are you a solo artist? If so, what do you need to bring with you to make your shows happen? If you are a band, list who is coming, then list what gear each band member needs to bring with them, including personal luggage. Don't forget the merch (do you have CDs? Download cards? T-Shirts?)!

4. Get The Details.

This is called "advancing". As far as scheduling goes, you might not be able to get the specifics of what time you need to be at each venue along your tour until a week or so before the gigs - but you can get a basic idea, since you should at least know what time the show starts each night. How much are you getting paid per gig? This is key to working out your tour budget.

5. Make A Budget.

This is hard for most bands to stomach at first, but it's a sad-but-unfortunate truth: chances are you're not going to be pulling in much, if any, guaranteed cash on your first tour. Planning out a budget in advance is essential in making sure you lose as little money as possible. Make a spreadsheet (if you don't have Excel or OpenOffice at your disposal, create one on Google Drive) and list every expense you can think of, from gas to food to lodging to mid-tour laundry. Then put it away for a day. When you look at it again tomorrow, what jumps out at you? Maybe you can live without certain budget items.  Or maybe you'll suddenly remember that your bass player has a cousin in Topeka, and you can crash at their place after the gig there that night.

6. Make A Plan.

Look at your calendar. Where is your first gig, and how far is it from your hometown? How far apart are all the other gigs from one another? (Google Maps is about to become your best friend.) Do you have any days off between gigs? What does your budget allow for, as far as travel plans go? If you suddenly realize you have gigs on consecutive days in cities that are a 12-hour drive apart (not a problem for the headliner on their tour bus, but an issue for you as the opener), how are you going to make that happen?

7. Don't Panic!

Another reminder never hurts.

Future installments in this series-of-undetermined-length will go into each of these points in detail. Stay tuned!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ready For Liftoff

I have been a professional traveler and travel organizer for almost a decade. I work with an indie musician and her band on an endless tour. Over the years, lots of people have told me I should share my tips, best practices, things to avoid, frustrations, and funny stories from the road ... so here we go. More to come!