Living With Less: 500 sq. feet and just the essentials

Jim and I just returned from a wonderful 3 day vacation in Friday Harbor, a touristy town of about 2,000 on San Juan Island, Washington.


This was our first trip with Gadget and an unusual trip for us in that we spent almost half of every day inside our 500 sq ft hotel room!

Since our trip fell squarely into what is considered the “off season” on the island, most attractions were either running on winter hours or closed altogether. So while we may wake up at 6 and be ready to venture into the world by 7, there wasn’t much to do before 10am or after 5pm.  (Not a complaint, we love the quirks of off-season travel.)

When we travel we usually try to maximize the time we spend at whatever the nearby point of interest is. Disney parks have us up by 7 and in line for whichever park opens earliest by 8 or 9. Ditto and likewise for road trips and skiing vacations. On those kinds of trips, we return to the room and collapse into bed somewhere around 9 or 10. There’s never much time to enjoy the room, nor is there any point – the rooms we rent tend to be little more than a bed in a box.

But this room was different!

This room (at the Friday Harbor Suites) had an almost-kitchen including flatware, bowls and plates, a sink with Palmolive and a new sponge, microwave, medium sized fridge. It also had a dining table, a separate bedroom, a bathroom larger than any I have in my single family home, a living room complete with sofa and oversized coffee table, and a little sliding door that opened to a ground-level deck. If the room just had a range to cook on, I think I could have moved in.

Everything had a purpose, and almost nothing duplicated the purpose of anything else (well, except for the two flat screen televisions and the bar chairs at the kitchen ledge).



Living in this tiny space was refreshing! As a recovering stuff addict, I love an opportunity to see just how much stuff I don’t actually need.

Three days in the “mini house” also made it obvious how much of my home is just duplication.

Whereas this hotel room had just one table to eat at, my home has at least five places where we occasionally dine:

  • dining room table (where most of our meals are eaten)
  • TV trays in front of the blue sofa
  • computer desks upstairs (I eat here sometimes)
  • folding card table in living room
  • standing up in the kitchen (guilty…)

I can also sew at two different machines, shower in two different showers, sit on four different toilets, wash my hands in any of 5 different sinks, and lounge on two different sofas. If I wanted to sit somewhere, I count at least 11 different places I could have a nice sit. I have two televisions (and three laptops, plus an iPad) for watching things on, and I even have two separate beds I could sleep in.

That’s a lot of duplication.

If I removed all the duplication from my home (three of the four bathrooms, all but one of the bedrooms, one of the living rooms, etc), I’d probably have a 700 sq ft home instead of a 2200 sq ft home!

A lot of it happened accidentally – upgrading to a new version of something and retaining the old one is the most common cause of duplication. But it’s a lot of upkeep and management, time I’d rather spend making art or writing or walking outdoors with my family.

In a way, my home encouraged it. When there’s room for stuff, it’s easy to keep it around!

When we replaced our 7 year old sofa with one large enough to hold us both, the old sofa just moved to another room (at the cost of $125 for movers, since we couldn’t move it ourselves). The room that received it was otherwise empty – because for whatever reason, my 1977 single family home has both a family room and a living room to fill up. Sure, we’d left that living room empty for a good three years, but the looks we got from visitors made it clear that the social expectation was that living rooms should have at least a little furniture in them.

But what’s the point? I didn’t miss the excess while on my vacation, and I didn’t mind having “only” one place to sit or sleep. Why do I need two sofas if one will do? Why was my house (and so many like it) built on the assumption that someone would want so many duplicates of things? (It even has two fireplaces!)

The three days I spent in this little room were inspiring. I took three car-loads of unused stuff to the local charity dropoff the day after we got back. Feels good, man.

Things I Like: 5 Best Tech Travel Accessories

Yes, I “vacation” with my electronics… :)  I put “vacation” in quotes because it never really is one – I can’t resist the urge to stay productive, especially when long plane trips don’t offer much opportunity to do anything but write or code on a computer.

In 2013 alone I traveled over 10,000 miles by plane: I made it all the way to Alaska, California, Chicago, and Florida!

2013 5 best tech travel accessories

Some of the accessories I brought along totally rocked, so to celebrate their awesomeness, here’s my list of the 5 best tech travel accessories in my carry-on. (Yes, all these things will fit in your carry-on – I hate checking bags!)

1. Joby GorillaPod Hybrid tripod

Welp, this silly looking Joby tripod-thing sure shot right to the top of my best-of list.

5 best tech travel accessories Joby GorillaPod Hybrid Tripod

Joby GorillaPod Hybrid tripod doing what it does best – imitating dystopian cameras run amok.

This three-legged darling is a flexible tripod made by Joby and it is amazing.  I took it with to Disney World this December and I still can’t get over how awesome this thing is:

  • Rugged – I bent and twisted this thing every day. I even took it on roller coasters.  It’s still in one piece!
  • Use with sign posts, railings, fire hydrants, garbage cans, car roofs – you name it, just get creative and you’ll find “tripods” are everywhere around you
  • Can bring into Walt Disney World parks (full-size tripods are not as welcome)
  • Small and lightweight – I didn’t mind carrying it all day, and it fit nicely into my cinch-sack when I wasn’t using it
  • Bubble level – helps you know if your shot is straight
  • Easy to eject camera – the camera screws into an eject-able plate, so it comes off quickly
  • Long exposure shots anywhere! – I took a lot of shots I never could have without it

Usually I get home from a trip and find that my shots are mostly iPhone selfies and a few decent shots from my Canon but nothing at dusk or nighttime and nothing of myself at any further than arm’s length.  No more!  The Joby let me turn almost anything into a camera stand (my favorite WDW object to set it on turned out to be the metal-topped garbage cans everywhere in the parks). I took a ton of dusk and nighttime long exposure shots thanks to the Joby.

Here’s my Joby holding up my Canon as it works on a long-exposure shot.

5 best tech travel accessories Joby tripod in action

This photo of my Joby doing its thing was taken with my iPhone. As you can see, the iPhone 4S’s camera isn’t so great when the lighting’s poor, as evidenced by graininess and the flat black sky.

And here’s the shot my Canon point and shoot camera was able to take with the Joby tripod holding it steady for the 3 second exposure time:

5 best tech travel accessories Joby GorillaPod review long exposure nighttime shot

I can’t believe *I* took this photo!

My Joby tripod also enabled all kinds of creative, timer-delayed shots that were never possible before:

5 best tech travel accessories Joby GorillaPod posed photos

We put the Joby on a nearby fire hydrant and the camera on a 10 second delay to create this fun shot of us at the Gatorland entrance in Orlando, FL.

5 best tech travel accessories Joby GorillaPod on fire hydrant

All kinds of unusual objects, such as fire hydrants and railings, can be used to support the Joby GorillaPod.

So yeah, in short, I love my Joby GorillaPod.

Note: The Joby tripod does not make your camera walk independently and shoot lasers although I really, really wish it did.

2. iLuv Audio Splitter

I took a chance on the unknown-to-me iLuv brand audio splitter adapter after reading good reviews on Amazon.  Good news: it’s awesome.

The iLuv audio splitter had no noticeable effect on the volume or clarity of audio, which is great because I used it in the back seats of a noisy airplane so every bit of volume mattered. I used it to share video audio with my husband, but I think we’ll use it on future trips to share audio books and music as well.

In quieter tests, audio quality seemed unaffected. (Disclaimer: I’m not an audiophile.) 

5 Best Tech Travel Accessories iLuv audio adapter review

Yes, I love my iLuv audio splitter.  Plenty loud and with individual volume controls FTW.

Best of all, even though this thing is cheap (like, under $10), Amazon hasn’t classified it as an “add on” item yet, so you can still buy it by itself (like I did) as of this writing.

3. Power strip

Behold: the humble power strip. My favorite travel power strip isn’t bendy, Octopus-shaped, or color coded, but it is durable and incredibly useful.  I travel with an RCA power strip, and the one I’m using has now endured about 7 years of travel abuse.

5 best tech travel accessories RCA power strip for travel

My favorite power strip is this rugged RCA-brand surge protector.

A lot of “best tech travel accessories” lists like to recommend these compact adapters, but I don’t like them as much.  I own one, and I stopped traveling with it because it’s just not as good as a power strip.

5 best tech travel accessories Belkin SurgePlus

The Belkin SurgePlus 3-Outlet Mini Travel Adapter with USB ports wins at compactness, but doesn’t win at capacity or convenient placement.

Mini adapters don’t offer as many plugs and have to be accessed wherever the outlet happens to be – behind the nightstand or under the table.  I hate bending and crawling under tables, so a power strip with a 6′ cord works much better for me.  I plug it in and set the strip anywhere – usually on top of the table.

Added bonus: A power strip makes you king of the airport terminal if you’re stuck waiting on a delayed jet – no need to fight over the one plug available, there’s room for many on any decent power strip.

Things to look for in a travel power strip:

I like my power strips rugged, with thick cords, heavy plastic, and flat plugs.  I like the cord to be at least 6′ long so I can position the power strip conveniently.  Keeping in mind the one outlet in the hotel room is often under a table or stuffed behind something else, a few feet of cord can be a huge help.

  • Space between plugs to accommodate cell phone charge bricks
  • Surge protection (if you’re paranoid like me)
  • Ruggedness – thick cord, heavy plastic
  • Cord length – 6′ or more lets you position the strip somewhere you can actually reach
  • Polarized plugs – for safety!

4. Retractable cord mouse

If you travel with a laptop but hate being limited to the touch pad, a retractable mouse is a cheap way to improve your workflow.

This Verbatim-brand retractable cord mini mouse is currently Amazon’s highest rated retractable-cord mouse.

5 best tech travel accessories mini mouse retractable cord

Verbatim’s retractable cord mini mouse comes in a rainbow of color options

Alas, they no longer sell the mouse I use, which is a Kensington Ci25m Notebook Optical Mouse. It has survived 4 years of abuse.  Here it is in action on my recent flight to Orlando:

5 best tech travel accessories travel mouse and laptop on a tray table

A mini mouse fits on an airplane tray table with room to spare for the netbook. (Mine’s 10.5″)

Combined with my 10.5” netbook, the travel mouse lets me have the “real PC” experience a bit more while I’m crammed into the back of a jet. Makes me much faster than fumbling around with the track pad.

Things to look for in a travel mouse:

  • Retractable cord – just one less cord to get tangled in things
  • Good size – be wary of super micro mouses, which are basically for fingertip use only, if you’re hoping for something more substantial

5. Bose headphones

Once upon a time (8 years ago, actually) I was a student at an art school that required everyone to get around-ear headphones for a series of audio/video classes. I tried a bunch of cheaper headphones, but the Bose Around-Ear Headphones was the only set of headphones that fit around my ears comfortably and sit on my head for hours without feeling heavy while still doing a good job of muffling the noise around me.

5 best tech travel accessories Bose around ear headphones

Bose has newer models, but these headphones are champions

These headphones were about $150 when I bought them (in 2005) and have since come down in price as Bose has produced newer models.  These headphones are still going strong. I never travel without ’em because they’re slim enough to fit into a backpack (providing I give them some cushioning, you shouldn’t throw them in haphazardly) and do a decent job of muffling the noise of the airplane cabin.  Sometimes I put them on my head and don’t listen to anything at all – they are a convenient way to say, “Shut up, world!”. :D

So there we have it – my five favorite tech travel accessories!  Do you have any must-haves when you travel? Tell us about them in the comments!

Disneyland 2013 Quotes



Here’s some of the ridiculous stuff we said along the way. 

“That was ANOTHER Mater.” – Jim discovering a bit of Disney magic

“I FEEL FINE!!!!!!!!” – Jim’s pure delight after riding the Tower with no ill effects

“Today was great because I saw Genie twerking Jafar” – Jim after the Aladdin stage show

“Are you ready? ARE YOU READY??” – Me on the very first Splash Mountain hill climb
“Yes.” – Jim, bracing for a big drop

“WHAT!” – Jim, realizing the first climb is a fake-out and there is no drop there

“I like eating park food.  My parents wouldn’t let us, it was just ‘Here’s a peanut butter jelly sandwich that’s been in my purse all day'”.  – Jim, on the luxuries of eating in the park

“I’m gonna need a breakfast soon.” – Me
“I’m sure there’s an ice cream place open somewhere” – Jim

“No one told me we were doing Flash Mountain!!” – Me, upon realizing I was the only person in the boat who didn’t pull their shirt up or off

“HOW DO YOU DO?! FINE, HOW ARE YOU?”  – Us singing along on Splash Mountain, and on the walk back to our hotel, and in our hotel, and at the airport, and at home…

Alaska Road Trip: Driving from Denali to Anchorage (Part 4)

Days 4 and 5 – Heading Home

One Last Look for Denali

Saturday = drive back to Anchorage day!  We’re usually pretty excited to head back home, and this trip’s no exception.

But before driving down to Anchorage, we first went north a bit and back to the Denali 15-mile long Park Road one last time in hopes of seeing the Denali itself, as we’ve still yet to see the park’s namesake mountain.  We were in luck! The clouds parted and holy wow that’s a huge mountain! 

Denali from Denali National Park paved road

We drove to the end of the Park Road and climbed this giant heap of rocks for a better view (there’s a path, don’t worry :P).

hiking at the end of the paved Denali National Park road

We were all like:

Happy in Denali Alaska

And Denali was all like:

Driving from Denali to Anchorage one last view of Denali

It was spectacular, but clouds soon rolled in as if to say “there, you saw it, now get going on that five hour drive back to Anchorage!”

Denali Park Tidbits

On our way out of the park we stopped at one of the hiking spots.  Both of us were too chicken to actually go hiking (for numerous reasons, but mostly out of fear of bears) so we walked for ten minutes on one of the easy trails near the parking lot. We found this pile of poop on our walk, which Jim declared bear poop.  I thought it was moose poop, but without access to Google we’re both pretty useless when it comes to this nature stuff.

Denali animal poop

The scenery, however, was still spectacular.


Back at the parking lot, we marveled at the reinforced bear-proof Denali bathrooms.

Denali restrooms

Denali reinforced bathroom door

Before we left, Denali had one more treat for us.  When we returned to the parking lot, parked next to our rental was its younger sibling.  Check out the plates: GQA 556 and GQA 555.  Both are from the same Hertz fleet. What are the odds!?!

Anchorage Hertz fleet Fiesta

The couple driving the blue Fiesta casually left car and walked away to explore the park, not realizing the awesomeness of this coincidence.  Don’t worry, I enjoyed it enough for them.

The 6-Hour Drive to Anchorage

When we arrived on Wednesday, we banged out a 3-hour flight and a 5-hour drive like it weren’t no thang.  So we figured driving from Denali to Anchorage on Saturday wouldn’t be so bad – after all, there was no 3-hour flight beforehand.   We were wrong: the drive back felt like eternity.  We must have been pretty worn out by this point in the trip.

But we saw some cool things along the way, such as:

Driving from Denali to Anchorage moose sighting

Roadside moose

Driving from Denali to Anchorage scenery

Huge mountains, muddy rivers, and thick clouds are my favorite parts of Alaska scenery.

Driving from Denali to Anchorage creepy building

Come inside, children…

Denali State Park bullet sign

Discharge of weapons rule barely readable due to bullet holes

Approaching Anchorage from the north

Almost back to Anchorage

We arrived in Anchorage around 6:30pm blind with hunger and desperate for comfort.

Dinner in Anchorage

We went directly to our favorite place from our last visit to Anchorage, the Glacier Brewhouse, only to find every table was booked for the next three hours.  We were about to leave when a couple in the bar seating waved us over, said we could have their table, and we just about fainted in gratitude.

Thirty minutes later, we feasted on a half roasted chicken and the best prime rib either of us has ever tasted:

Glacier Brewhouse chicken

Glacier Brewhouse Anchorage dinner

Glacier Brewhouse Anchorage dinner

Thank you, anonymous couple, for the incredible dinner and a great end to our Denali-Anchorage drive.  Word to the wise: make reservations if you’re gonna eat at the Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage.

After our meal, we paid it forward by flagging down another disappointed couple on their way out and offering them our table.

Leaving Anchorage

Our flight was early Sunday morning, so we overnighted at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage, which was near the airport but absolutely terrible for the $200 we paid for the night. At least we weren’t there long.

fish pillows

The Millennium Hotel in Anchorage got one thing right: FISH PILLOWS

Instead, we went straight downstairs for breakfast at the attached restaurant, The Flying Machine. We immediately regretted not eating out of a dumpster for breakfast instead.  I think Alaska was telling us to go home.  Fortunately, we were just a couple hours from saying our goodbyes.


One three-hour flight later we were coming in for landing over Seattle.

Landing plane over Seattle

Coming home is the best feeling on earth!

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