9 Actions You Can Take to Survive the Airport

Sometimes it seems like a minor miracle if you can make it from the airport doors to your seat on the plane without being searched, patted down, waiting in an exorbitantly long line, having your gate changed, being charged a fee, or a host of other annoyances. There are many things at the airport that are beyond your control, but taking charge of the things you can do to create a non-aggravating experience may help. These 12 tips will show you how to do just that.

Arrive early: It sounds so obvious, but many people don’t do it, putting themselves through unnecessary stress. Arriving at the airport early starts long before you get in the car, though. It involves packing ahead of time, taking care of anything you need to do at home well before you leave, and thinking about what kind of weather and traffic you’ll likely encounter on the drive and at what time you need to leave the house to get to the airport early under those conditions. Then, if you’re a slowpoke and you need to leave the house at noon, plan to leave at 11 and you might actually make it out the door by noon.

When you get to the airport early, it won’t matter if the woman in front of you in the security checkpoint line takes 10 minutes and 5 of those plastic tubs to get out her laptop, take off her knee-high leather boots, remove her gigantic coat, find all the liquids in her bag, shove them in an airport-provided quart Ziploc, and explain to the screening agent that she can’t put her Chihuahua on the conveyor belt. With an ample time cushion, you can be amused instead of angered by these sort of delays if they arise, and avoid all the stress of possibly missing your flight.

Think small: Make sure your carry-on luggage is small enough that you won’t get hassled about it and that you can easily lift it in and out of the overhead bin. It’s a gigantic pain to have to repack or check your carry-on after you get to the airport because airline employees or security staff won’t let you through with your luggage. It’s also a gigantic pain to drop your suitcase on your head when you’re trying to get it in and out of the airplane storage bins (and a lawsuit waiting to happen if you drop it on someone else’s).

Don’t check luggage: You can shorten your total travel time by an hour if you don’t have to wait in line to check in luggage and hang around by the conveyor belt after your flight. You also won’t have to worry about your luggage getting lost, and you’ll have a lot less weight to carry. If I can travel to Europe in winter for 10 days with three pairs of shoes and not check a bag, you can leave the giant wheeled suitcase at home, too. If you simply must have a large amount of luggage, check out FedEx’s door-to-door luggage service. With the prices airlines charge for checked luggage these days, FedEx’s fees might make sense.

Check in online: It’s not always possible when you’re on vacation, but whenever you can, you should check in online and print your boarding pass before you leave for the airport. Not all airports have automated check-in kiosks, so you can really save yourself some time and hassle by being able to go straight to security. If you’re the type who loses things easily, you can print several copies of your boarding pass at home and put them in different places in your luggage so you’ll have one when you need it.

Familiarize yourself with the rules: Read FAA regulations and baggage restrictions ahead of time to make sure you don’t get any nasty surprises at the airport. The rules about things like baggage weight seem to change so frequently these days that you might want to review the rules again before each trip. When you’re in compliance, you won’t have to deal with getting your luggage searched, getting things confiscated, paying unwanted fees, or having to check baggage you wanted to carry on–or feeling any of the stress and anger that can come with these events.

Pack wisely: Pack your carry-on liquids properly ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about it at the airport, and put them in an easy-to-access part of your bag because you’ll have to put them in a bin separately to go through security. The same goes for anything else that has to be checked at the airport, like your driver’s license, the boarding pass you printed at home, and your laptop.

Get tips specific to your trip: Flyertalk’s bulletin boards are a great source of specific tips for flying. You can learn things like how to rack up frequent flyer miles, the pros and cons of specific airlines, how the airport you’re connecting through is laid out, where to recharge your laptop, which airplanes have the most legroom, and how to reduce your travel costs.

Dress appropriately: Wearing drawstring or elastic-waist pants will ease your trip through security and make sitting in that cramped seat in coach a little more comfortable. Don’t you feel undignified taking your belt on and off in public (especially if it is, in fact, holding up your pants) or getting patted down because you set off the metal detector? Plus, there are already so many things to worry about that you might as well cut down on the number of issues you have to deal with. If you need to look nice when you arrive at your destination, just change in the bathroom’s handicapped stall after you land. Also, wear shoes that are easy to take on and off, and make sure you’re wearing socks so you don’t have to go barefoot on the grimy airport floor.

Don’t wait at your gate: There’s no need to start being annoyed by the people on your flight before you’re even on the plane. Also, while your departure area will probably be cramped with everyone else waiting for your flight, there will often be plentiful seating at a nearby gate, allowing you to enjoy a few minutes of personal space and quiet instead of sitting on the floor next to some overly-energetic kids because there are no seats left in your gate area. Just make sure to pay close attention to the time, because you usually can’t hear the boarding announcements for your flight if you’re sitting at the wrong gate.

Try some of these ideas, if not all of them, the next time you fly, and the airport gods just might smile down on you.

Product Review: iRobot 110 Dirt Dog Workshop Robot

I recently treated myself to something I'd been wanting forever: a Roomba. Ever since I saw it on Gilmore Girls three years ago, in fact, I have longed to have a robot clean my floors. The least expensive model I could find was the iRobot 110 Dirt Dog Workshop Robot, a model that is designed to clean workshops and garages. While I wanted it to clean my house, not a workshop, the reviews on Amazon suggested that it would do a fine job on my hardwood floors.

The problem was this: even when I cleaned my floors thoroughly, they still felt dirty underfoot. If you've ever walked barefoot across a hardwood floor that wasn't perfectly clean, you know that icky feeling of dirt and grit sticking to your feet. Also, hardwood floors show dirt a lot more than carpet, and I didn't like spending an hour a week cleaning my floors. Enter the Dirt Dog, which could clean my floors for me and, hopefully, get them cleaner than I could.

The product is not a vacuum, but a sweeper. If you've ever seen a street cleaning truck, the design is similar. A little brush spins out of the side, sweeping dirt underneath the Roomba, where another brush sweeps the dirt into the dust bin.

Roombas come in a wide variety of price points. This was the cheapest model at the time of my purchase, and is priced at $158 as of this writing. At the time I purchased it, the price had mysteriously dropped to $99--I got lucky. Maybe I stumbed across a Gold Box deal without realizing it. I also had an Amazon gift certificate left over from last December's CoinStar promotion, so I was able to get it for around $50--quite a steal.

The product works as well as I'd hoped--I've never had such clean floors, and I can happily walk across them barefoot. With the new kittens, there is more cat fur, tracked cat litter, and bits of carpet torn off of cat scratching posts than ever and the floor needs to be cleaned twice a week now instead of once.

The downsides are these:
-It is very noisy. I prefer to not be in the room while it's running.
-The battery lasts for two hours. This is long enough to clean maybe 600 SF, but not long enough to clean my whole house.
-It takes much longer to clean a room than I would. And watching it can drive you crazy, as it appears to have no rhyme or reason to its cleaning pattern.
-It bumps into things harder than I expected.
-It's not very tall (maybe 3 to 4 inches), but is too tall to fit under my couch.

That being said, overall I'm very happy with it:
-I don't have to do anything but move it to the room I want cleaned and press the clean button. In between, I sometimes have to clean the brushes, empty the dust bin, and plug it into the charger. That's it.
-It doesn't seem to be damaging anything, yet, though the bumping does make a gal worry.
-In particular, it seems to be gentle enough to not scratch my floors, which was one of my main concerns.
-My floors have never been so clean.
-It's very thorough. It doesn't miss a single spot, except the ones it can't get to. It's a little over a foot wide, so it can't fit into spaces narrower than that. However, it cleans under my bed a lot easier than I can.

I do wonder if a different model would be quieter, but I don't think it's worth the extra expense to find out. The iRobot Roomba® Silver is more widely available and costs $200 (I did see it on sale at Target once for, I think, $130). There's also the red model, iRobot Roomba 410 Intelligent Floorvac Robotic Vacuum Cleaner, which is currently $150--now more expensive than the Dirt Dog, but at the time of my purchase, significantly more. If you have the extra money, it may be worth trying a higher-end model to see if it's quieter or doesn't bump into things as hard, but if your main concern is function, I think the iRobot 110 Dirt Dog Workshop Robot is just fine.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

The Cost of Pet Ownership: Adding Two New Kittens to Our Home

My boyfriend and I recently adopted two kittens from a local kitten rescue organization. They take in kittens and cats that have been abandoned by their owners or that are strays (including some that are found by animal control, which frequently kills the animals it finds because there are just so many). Then they get the animals spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and find loving homes for as many as possible.

While it's possible to get a kitten for free initially by getting it from someone whose cat has had kittens or from someone who found kittens, it ends up being more expensive in the long run because the kittens need several vaccinations, a deworming pill, and spaying or neutering.

Not only do all of these things cost more money than the rescue agency charges for the kitten, it also takes time to make all those trips to the vet. And, very young kittens need intense care, including bottle feeding several times a day, which most people don't have the time or knowledge to handle. What's more, we already had two adult cats and didn't want to risk exposing them to any diseases by bringing cats of questionable health into the household. By going through the rescue organization, we knew we were getting cats that didn't have feline leukemia virus or any other preventable illnesses and supporting people who do good things (as opposed to professional cat breeders--why breed cats when there are already so many out there that thousands are euthanized every year because there aren't enough people to take them all in?).

The adoption fee was $95 per kitten, but since one of us itemizes deductions on our tax return now that we have a mortgage and the adoption fee is technically considered a donation to a non-profit organization, the real cost is only around $60 per kitten. We will also have to pay for one more vaccine per kitten, and our litter and food costs will be about $25 a month. Also, we think one of the kittens needs to see a vet, which will probably cost us at least $100 in the near future, plus there is the cost of a second litter box and, eventually, two more cat carriers. While it's unlikely that we would ever take all four cats somewhere at once, we want to make sure we have the ability to pack them all up and go in case of an emergency.

Assuming the new kittens live 15 to 20 years, since they will be indoor-only cats, the lifetime cost of owning them in terms of litter and food alone will be between $2250 and $3000 per cat. That sounds like a lot when you add it up, doesn't it? Neither of us has ever had an elderly cat before, so we're not sure what medical expenses might be involved when they get older, and of course, there is always the chance that an expensive medical procedure could become necessary even before they are old. Since we already have two cats, we are now actually spending a minimum of $50 a month to have pets.

It does sound like a lot, but as most people who have pets (or children, for that matter) will tell you, the cost is really beside the point. Is the company, affection, and joy of having these animals worth $1.67 a day to me? You bet!

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

Garden Harvest Update: Does Gardening Pay Off? Part 1

I have already harvested 40.5 pounds of produce from my garden, and most of the things I'm growing aren't even ready to harvest yet. So far, I've mostly harvested zucchini and yellow crookneck squash, and more recently pickling cucumbers (which I don't pickle, but peel and eat in salads) and a few sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I'm still waiting on all the peppers, other tomatoes, eggplant, corn, and melons. In the spring I harvested some leaf lettuce and arugula, but it's too hot for those now--they've bolted and I'm just waiting to collect the seeds.

To keep track of how much of a return on investment I'm getting in my garden, I'm keeping track of the monetary value of my harvest. Produce prices change every week and vary dramatically depending on where you shop, so I've tried to pick middle-of-the-road numbers that reflect what I would be likely to pay if I went to the store without and special planning or sale following and just bought whatever I wanted.

So, for example, while there is a store nearby where I can get 3 pounds of zucchini for 99 cents, since I don't like to shop there and it requires a special trip, I know I am more likely to buy the zucchini at the store where it costs 99 cents a pound. Thus, 99 cents a pound is how I value my squash. I've valued my cherry tomatoes at $1.99 a pound, lettuce at $2.99 a pound, and cucumbers at 69 cents a pound. So far the total value of what I've harvested comes to $42. I spent $153 to get my garden up and running this year (that number doesn't take into account things I already owned or that were given to me). So I still have $111 to go just to break even.

These numbers don't tell the whole story, though. For one, the herbs I've harvested, like the basil I used to make pesto, weigh so little that I haven't kept track of them (but I should, because they are awfully expensive at the store). Also, the other member of my household, like many men, still eats like a teenager and doesn't like most vegetables. So that leaves one person to eat 40 pounds of produce over a period of six weeks. I haven't been able to do it, and I'm determined to not waste any, so I've actually given away several pounds of zucchini and frozen another several pounds to use in the winter. Today I'm going to try making a zucchini soup to use another several pounds. Sadly, I've thrown away a few ounces of lettuce that I couldn't eat before it wilted, a pound of zucchini that I used in recipes that didn't turn out well, and a few pounds of diseased squash that were inedible. My goal, however, is zero waste.

Having never grown zucchini before, I had no idea how prolific my four plants would be. I got sick of the stuff after a week of eating two pounds of it sauteed and roasted every day. I know I could make zucchini bread, but to me, turning something healthy into something unhealthy kind of defeats the purpose of eating a vegetable. So I have given away about 12 pounds of zucchini.

In a sense, that reduces my return on investment, but in another sense, you really can't put a price on gaining the goodwill of your future in-laws by sending them something they like to cook with.

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How to Grow Your Own Vegetables and Herbs to Save Money

Post by Amy Fontinelle

How to Grow Your Own Vegetables and Herbs to Save Money

Growing your own vegetables can save you money if you pay close attention to your startup and maintenance costs (like seeds, fertilizer, and insecticide). And even if it doesn't save you money, gardening can have other benefits, like relaxation, enjoyment, making fewer trips to the grocery store, and eating healthier. Here's what I've learned over the last several years about growing a successful garden.

1. Scope out your yard for the best spot. Ideally, you want a southern exposure to give your plants as much sunlight as possible, which is key to their growth. However, if the southern side of your yard doesn't actually get a lot of sunlight (because it is shaded by trees or a building, for example), you'll need to look for the next sunniest spot in your yard. The best place to put your garden is the spot that gets the most hours of full sunlight. Full sunlight means no shade.

2. Decide what you want to plant. Different plants require different amounts of space to grow, so what you want to grow will determine how much space you need to allocate to your garden. Zucchini plants, for example, need about four feet around them. Peppers only need about a foot and a half.

3. Prepare the soil. The roots of plants don't grow in the dirt--they grow in the spaces between the dirt. So if the dirt in your yard is really compacted, and it probably is, you need to loosen it up so the roots will be able to spread out and your plant will be able to grow. You also want to give your plants a source of food, so it's a good idea to work some fertilizer into the soil before you plant. Directions on the box will tell you how much to use per square foot.

There's a good chance that you'll have to dig up part of your lawn at this stage. To prevent the grass from growing back into your garden, you'll want to put in some lumber or stones to divide the lawn from the garden. Loosening up the soil also improves drainage--the rate at which water flows through the soil. This is important because if the roots of your plants sit in wet soil for too long, they will rot, killing the plant. In addition to loosening the soil, creating raised beds or raised rows will improve soil drainage.

If you don't have any land, you can plant in containers. The larger the container, the better--you want to try to mimic the experience of the plant growing in the ground. That being said, you don't want to use regular soil from the ground--you want to use potting soil for anything you grow in pots. I've had the most success with 15-gallon containers.

4. Plant. You can either sow seeds directly into your garden, start seedlings in small trays or pots, or buy seedlings at the nursery. The cheapest and most effective method is to buy seeds and start them in small, divided trays. Seeds will cost between $1 and $3 for an entire package of at least 50 seeds. You'll pay the same price for a single plant at a nursery.

To start your own seeds, you'll need to start planning your garden pretty early in the year, probably around Februar or March, and you may need to start growing them indoors under a grow light (where it's warm enough for the seeds to germinate and the seedlings won't succumb to frost). When the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, they are large enough to transplant into the garden. Be careful not to damage the roots or the fragile stems during this process or the plants will likely die.

5. After transplanting, it's important to keep the soil moist to keep the plants alive. "Water regularly until established" is a common piece of advice you'll see on seed packages and plant labels. Once the plants have been in the ground for a while, their roots will have branched out and will be able to seek out sources of moisture further in the ground. You'll still have to water them, but you'll be able to cut back to once or twice a week.

If it rains, of course, you won't need to water as often. You can check the moisture level of the soil by sticking your finger in to a depth of 1-2 inches. If it feels dry and your plants are young, it's time to water.

6. Proper watering is extremely important to the success of your garden. Once plants are established, it's best to water deeply once or twice a week instead of watering just a little every day. When you water a lot at once time, you may have some water sitting on top of the soil, but eventually it will sink in and the soil will be wet to a depth of several inches. This encourages roots to grow deep, which leads to stronger, healthier plants.

Your plants will tell you if they aren't getting enough water. If the leaves are droopy and seem thin or flimsy, your plants are thirsty. Properly watered plants have perky, slightly stiff leaves. If you're not sure what I mean by this, think of wilted lettuce versus crisp lettuce. You don't want your plants' leaves to have the consistency of wilted lettuce--they will dry out and die if you don't water them. Also, underwatered plants are more susceptible to pests and diseases.

At the same time, you don't want to overwater. If the leaves of your plants are turning yellow, you've probably overwatered. If this happens, let the plant dry out for a few days until the leaves aren't yellow anymore.

7. You will probably come across at least one pest and at least one plant disease in the course of growing your plants. If you are diligent and spend some time looking at each plant in your garden every single day, you will catch the signs of these problems immediately and probably be able to treat them successfully. Personally, I never had any success with organic pesticides and fungicides, but that doesn't mean they won't work for you.

Learning about pests and diseases can be one of the more frustrating aspects of gardening. At first, you won't have any idea what is wrong with your plants and thus, you won't know how to treat the problems you encounter. This is just a matter of doing research on the symptoms of the problems you discover and some trial and error in treating things.

Eventually you'll be able to identify aphids and powdery mildew almost before they become problems, but while you're learning, your best bet is to use products that treat a broad spectrum of problems. That way, even if you misidentify the problem, you may still end up treating it effectively.

8. Be diligent. You need to spend some time in your garden every single day if you want to stay on top of problems and keep your plants healthy. Problems can become insurmountable very quickly. What's more, if you look at your plants every day, you'll notice all the exciting changes going on--the first flowers on your zucchini, the first cucumbers starting to grow, tomatoes starting to turn red, peas that are the right size to pick.

That's basically it. There will always be factors you can't control, like weather, but if you pay close attention to the things you can control, your garden will have a good chance of success.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

Backyard Gardening: Will I Save Money by Growing My Own Food?

I have a house now, which means that I have a yard, which means that I can finally grow plants in the ground instead of only in containers. In my excitement, I went a little crazy with planting things. I planted 57 herbs, fruits, and vegetables. I started a few from seed, but I purchased most as seedlings because I got a late start on my garden this year.

I planted most things on April 1. Here is what my garden looked like then (click on any image for a larger view):

There isn't a ton of space in my backyard that gets good sunlight, so my initial garden plot was only about 8 feet by 10 feet. I planted everything with the minimum recommended spacing (you'll see how this panned out in a minute). I chose to plant the things I like to eat, so my garden includes zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, fennel, and eggplant, to name a few things I planted. After two weeks, things had started growing a little, but overall didn't look much different:

In the front are the zucchini, behind that tomatoes, behind that lettuce, then peppers, then more zucchini.

By May 3, you can really tell that things are growing:

As you can see, I expanded my garden to the right to make room for more tomatoes, canteloupe, and sweet corn (not pictured) and also planted some things in pots so I would have enough room to grow everything. Also, the leaf lettuce I planted was big enough to harvest. It's leaf lettuce, so you just cut what you eat rather than pulling the whole head out of the ground and that's it. By the time I eat one bunch, it's already grown back! The bag of lettuce I buy at the grocery store, on the other hand, does not magically refill itself over the course of a week.

By May 25, almost all of my plants had set fruit and several zucchini and squash were large enough to harvest.

We now affectionately refer to my garden as "the jungle." It does seem that I have planted things a bit too close together--it's hard to reach in and harvest some of the squash, and hard to walk around and look at things to check for pests, diseases, things that are ready for harvest, and over- and underwatering. Since I've never done this before, I didn't have any idea how large a zucchini plant could get (or how prolific it could be) or that my tomato plants wouldn't really want to stay in their cages and would start growing into other plants. Next year I will probably arrange things differently and space them out more. I'm also considering planting some things in the front yard, if I can find an appropriate space to do it.

Not counting the pots, tools, potting soil, and seeds I acquired in previous years or that were given to me, I have spent $147 on my garden this year. The cost of things purchased in the past and free stuff would add another $40 to $50. Another cost that I can't really measure accurately is the cost to water my garden. If I had to guess, I would guess that I spend about $5-$10 a month on irrigation for my garden based on the increase in my water bill since winter.

Labor is also an important consideration in the cost-benefit analysis of growing your own food. I haven't been counting the number of hours I spend in the garden--that just wouldn't be fun. I already track billable hours for the work I do, so the last thing I want to do is track the hours I spend on free time activities.

But it's safe to say that I spend around an hour a day on gardening activities, which means that since April 1, I've put 60 hours into my garden. But for me, gardening is fun, and it's not like I would otherwise be spending those 60 hours working--more likely, I'd be spending them watching TV. In fact, my TV watching has declined noticeably since I started my garden. Because of my garden, I'm spending more time enjoying the fresh air outside and less time sitting on my butt.

So despite my efforts to keep costs low, I doubt I will come out ahead on my garden in terms of costs. If I'm lucky, I'll harvest enough produce to break even. I kind of suspected this based on past experience, but hoped that growing things in the ground would be more productive than growing things in pots (which, so far, has been true). But more importantly (at least until I figure out how to do this less expensively), I've learned how a lot of things grow (something I prevoiusly knew nothing about); I've experienced countless moments of joy when I spotted that first tomato, first pepper, first cucumber, and first zucchini in the garden; the produce I'm eating is fresher than what I could get at the store; I don't have to drive anywhere to get it; and I'm probably eating more produce than I would be otherwise.

I'm keeping track of what I harvest using a postal scale and a spreadsheet. In May, I harvested 13 pounds(!) of squash and 26 ounces of lettuce. Given that lettuce costs $3 a pound and zucchini costs $1 a pound at the places I normally shop, I've harvested $18 worth of produce so far. Things are just starting, though. Once the tomatoes start turning red, given that they cost $3 to $4 a pound at the store (and those tomatoes don't even taste good!), I will really start recouping my costs.

If you have experience growing your own produce, I'd love to hear about it. What did you grow? Did gardening save you any money?

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Post by Amy Fontinelle