Be the Best Production Manager for Your Vacation

Who works on holidays?

Honestly, stage hands and production professionals do.

“We” being production folks. When the civilians (as I like to call non-production people) go on holiday to see shows and be entertained at the resorts and theme parks, who do you think is working those shows?

Us.

Every so often, we’re able to scratch out some time to get away and actually have a vacation. Everyone needs time-off to recharge and production people are no exception. You’re not being good to yourself in the long run OR the client if you’re just burning the candle at both ends 24/7/365. Being detail-oriented, engaged in meticulous planning for others, and having a billion contingency plans is what I do for a living – it’s not what I like to do on vacation. That being said, we also like efficiency and order so here’s how I keep the “production” part of the vacation to a dull roar without missing the key elements of vacation.

PRE-PRODUCTION (planning)

Just like in real production, 90% of the stress is in the planning. Take care in the advance phase and the rest is a breeze.

Decide on some dates. Critical. No date on the calendar, no trip. We started planning our most recent trip a year out. Not that we need that much time to plan activities and such, but we need to nail down a schedule and time frame so neither one of us gets pulled into a work call during those times. 

Make a decision and the rest will fall into place. Start somewhere. The biggest decision for us regarding a 10-day vacation tends to be transport and accommodations. Once we pull the trigger on one, the rest naturally falls into place. If you know you’re flying to Paris on Tuesday and flying out Saturday, you logically will need to find a place or places to lay your head between the time you arrive and time you depart.

Nearly all of our housing has come from Airbnb. They have a great website that allows you to search by price and location and also check out reviews and the filter for certain amenities like Wifi or kitchens. There are certainly other options though. Hostels are way different in other parts of the world than they are in the US. On super-duper extended stays, why not get compensated for travel by checking out WorkingCouples.com. I’ve had my eye on this site for a year now and keep meaning to take a 3 month sabbatical (typical length of non-resident VISA) and take care of someone’s ranch in Crete. 

We don’t worry too much about the dining/food situation because we’re both foodies and love to sample the local food found with street vendors. If we’re going to be in a single location for a significant portion of our trip, we’ll track down an Airbnb location that has a kitchen so we can store groceries and cook when we want to.

Transportation to our vacation destination is pretty simple for us: over 9 hours of driving, we’re flying. That being said, you should establish a budget for travel unless you’re Jay-Z and have a private 747 at your disposal. For our own latest trip, we initially thought that we’d be able to use airline points to cash in on some cheap flights when we started the discussion 9 months out. Unfortunately, with Morgan straight out at Wolf Trap Opera from April through August and me in Scotland, we didn’t actually start pulling the trigger until October. By then, a $300 flight had turned into $800. I’m no flight pricing expert, but I like to troll around on Google Flights to see what different airlines are offering for different travel dates and times of day. We stay flexible if possible. The day of the week you fly can mean the difference of several hundreds of dollars.

Phones are very useful. Seriously, having a smart phone is one of those things in our lives a lot of us take for granted at home but when you’re abroad in a different country, nothing is more helpful than having access to the internet. I didn’t always travel with internet access and I don’t want to dissuade you from travelling without a smart phone with international internet access, but it’s easier for me. Internet rates can be a lot cheaper abroad than they are here at home.

Make sure to check with your service provider to see if you can use your phone abroad and under what circumstances. Sometimes, getting a new SIM card at the airport upon arrival is the fastest way to getting yourself up and running in a new country – unless your phone is locked. I spent 5 hours this summer on Chat with Sprint in Scotland getting my phone unlocked because a policy had changed in the last 12 months that I didn’t know about. $600 later, I was able to use my phone. No bueno. Make sure you call before you leave the States.

Temporary phones – or burner phones (‘cuz I watch way too many suspense/spy movies) – are also available if you need some options.

Credit Cards and money. I inform all of my credit card companies what countries I’ll be travelling in and when. I’m religious about this because I was once caught 5 hours ahead of eastern standard time with no credit cards or cash on hand. Not fun. I also try to bring about $50 USD equivalent in local cash with me before I fly. ATM’s are prolific in most countries we’ve visited but debit card ATM fees are still out there and can really get out of hand. At the Cancun airport recently, I was forced to take out $40 USD and was charged $13 in additional fees. That’s over 30% in fees! Yuck!

Apparently Chase changes USD to local currency for free but I didn’t get the memo before we went to Mexico this time around. I’m always looking for how to cut fees and while foreign transaction fees are pretty much nixed on most of our cards, not everyone takes credit and getting access to cash without paying huge fees is a new challenge for me.

Parlez-vous anglais? It doesn’t take much time or effort and it goes a long ways towards establishing respect for the local culture and not being one of those people who just try to communicate their needs by speaking louder. There are plenty of ways to learn a new language or even just pick up a few words or phrases but the hardest part is just starting. I went to Croatia this past summer and just spent 10 minutes every day for a few weeks listening to a CD in my car going over some simple words and phrases. Didn’t make me proficient in Croatian but at least I wasn’t a complete bumbling idiot. Rest assured, there’s a lot more English spoken out there than you’d think so the least you can do is meet folks halfway by speaking a bit of their tongue.

When in Rome, see the Colosseum. Ok, I’ve never been to Rome but I’ve heard that getting tickets on the fly to some of these big tourist places can be a nightmare. If you have some things you want to do or places you want to see, I highly recommend you plan that stuff in advance. Not only do you have the luxury of spending non-vacation time looking at options, you’re also not going to get hosed with tourist pricing and seasonal availability once you’re on the ground. Make a list of things you’d like to do; talk to friends who have been to where you’re going; and check out reviews.

Passports and Identification Papers. It goes without saying that as of this writing (December 2018) passports are just about mandatory for travel. If you don’t have one, get one. You don’t just go down to the local DMV though so make sure you allow yourself 2 months for processing your application prior to travel. Photocopies of passports and birth certificates is helpful to have available as well. If you lose your passport or license, trying to prove to immigration officials or the US embassy who you are will just be easier with a copy of these docs. I store mine online so I can pull them up if I need to from a computer or my phone.

Driving and Rentals. Driving abroad can be easier said than done. Never mind the driving on the other side of the road if you hail from the US and want to do a little coastline excursion in the Scotland, you also need to have an IDP, or International Driving Permit. In our travels where we’ve rented a car, we haven’t needed an IDP but the rules can change so be aware. Here’s a link to a May 2018 article with a list of countries and their requirements. On the rental side, be aware as well that many rental companies may require a very size-able deposit for that vehicle so it’s not just the per day rate that you’re going to initially get dinged for. 

Travel Insurance. I’ve been an idiot and have simply relied on the coverage that my credit cards provide as my sole insurance policy when abroad. Real stupid but I’m getting better. Here’s an article worth checking out. We’ve been blessed that nothing has happened to us while travelling abroad where we’ve needed some insurance. While our credit cards may protect us from flight delays/cancellations and a lost luggage, largely my biggest concern are the types of emergencies that could really hamper your vacation and cause some serious issues like medical emergencies and natural disasters resulting in “need to expedite extraction ASAP”. If I need to rent a Huey to get me “feet wet” I’d like to know that I’ve got coverage for that or that I’m relegated to enlisting a paddle boat instead. We think about this stuff at work so it makes sense that we think about this when we’re 5000 miles away from our home base.

Pack Lightweight. You’ll appreciate not needing to check bags at the airport or risk lost luggage. Keep your needs to the what is allowed as the smallest carry-on dimensions for any flights you have booked. This past summer, I went 5 weeks in Scotland and Croatia with a 3000 cu. in. EMS backpack. That included rain gear and a pair of steel-toed boots required for work. Other gear I needed, I bought in-country once I landed or replaced as needed. You don’t need the kitchen sink and you certainly don’t need 4 pairs of shoes. 

PRODUCTION aka TRAVEL DAY ONE

You’re all packed up and ready to go. You checked-in the day before (took a screen shot of your online boarding pass) and your Uber is scheduled to pick you up and drop you off at the airport 2 hours in advance of your flight. What else?

One game changer that has helped us travelling is making sure that we have some things immediately accessible on our persons from check-in through clearing customs. I try to wear a many-pocketed top garment where I can stash charging cables, passports, pen, phone, empty water bottle (refill after security), snacks, book, and wallet. These are all things I’ll need in order to pass through security, make my flight as comfortable as possible, and then get through customs with as minimal a hassle as possible.

Once you’re through customs and have checked-in at whatever accommodations you’ve arranged, you should be in low-stress-express mode. I usually take this time to recharge my phone, unpack, and get my bearings. Local coffee shops, grocery stores, and travel hubs are top on my list. 

Important: Don’t throw away anything you get from the customs officials on the way in. You may need it to get out of the country later on. I just learned that the hard way.

VACATION

Enjoy it. Whatever you do, see or don’t do or don’t see, enjoy the time that you’re not getting sucked into other people’s problems. Personally, I’m happy spending 8 hours in a hammock reading a good book but I’m also happy seeing the sights. Hopefully you’ve left work behind so idly strolling around is okay. Try the local food. Splurge on an “excursion” that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to do easily back at home. This past vacation to Mexico, we went to Chichen Itza. It cost us some bucks but it was worth it. Private door-to-door service, lunch at a local restaurant, private tour of ancient ruins, and swimming in the freshwater cenotes that dot the Mexican Riviera Mayan area. A priceless-once-in-a-lifetime-experience for the cost of what you’d make in a typical day at work.

ALL THINGS MUST COME TO AN END

Sadly, the real world beckons eventually. Here are my big tips for bringing your vacation to a smooth conclusion and easing the transition back into work.

Gifts and memorabilia. Some people collect spoons, shot glasses, or tea towels. Meh. Pick your poison but do yourself a favor and keep it light, small and inexpensive. Morgan and I like to pick up a Christmas ornament from the country we’ve just visited. You still only have so much space in your bags but the duty-free shops do have some good deals. Know what you can bring on the airplane and what you’re comfortable packing. This last trip, we picked up a nice bottle of Cuervo, some vanilla, and some hot sauce. Inexpensive, but we didn’t really have room in our bags so it put us out of sorts simply because it was one more thing to carry.

Give yourself some time. We like to give ourselves at least a day to unwind from vacation mode so the transition to work isn’t such a shocker. I also tend to get a bit antsy towards the end of vacation so I usually take this time to toss unwanted emails so half my day at work isn’t blown on mundane activities. 

POST-MORTEM

Take an hour to upload your photos and videos into a central folder. You’ll appreciate that later when your mother is looking for pictures and you can just send her a simple link. I organize and curate all of our photos in Google Photos. You can use Dropbox, Box, iPhotos, whatever. Keep it simple.

In the days following your travel, as credit card charges are finalized, double-check your accounts to make sure someone hasn’t taken off with your card and joy-riding at your expense in Monte Carlo. You should be doing this for your domestic purchases anyway.

Finally, here’s a quote from Ernest Hemingway that I remember to help keep my work/life balance in check:

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hope this helps. If you have your own insights on vacation from a production person’s standpoint or would like to embellish some of the things I’ve written about, please do.

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